Thomas Morgan: The Universal Answer

Strikingly reserved yet mightily prolific, the bassist connects many of the most important musicians in current jazz 

Thomas Morgan (photo by John Rogers/ECM)

Since moving to New York almost 20 years ago, the bassist Thomas Morgan has appeared on more than 100 albums, establishing himself as one of the most in-demand sidemen in jazz. Collectively, the musicians he has recorded with make up a kind of modern pantheon of influential jazz artists: Craig Taborn, David Virelles, Paul Motian, Masabumi Kikuchi, Jen Shyu, Tomasz Stańko, David Binney, Tyshawn Sorey, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, John Abercrombie and Steve Cardenas, among many others.

It is, of course, easier for a bassist to leave his footprint in the recording world than it is for a guitarist or a trumpeter; bassists are almost always in demand. Yet the rate at which Morgan pops up on other musicians’ albums is still something of a marvel. Morgan has played and performed with such a wide variety of artists that you could get a good sense of jazz’s evolution over the past two decades just by following his name across liner notes.

Despite his ubiquity, however, he has never recorded an album under his own name, and he rarely performs as a leader, opting for the role of accompanist and interpreter. It isn’t for lack of nerve—though in person he is taciturn, a quality that suggests shyness but is really just the product of a careful mind. “[A leader recording is] something I had planned to do, and then I just got involved in other things,” Morgan told me, with characteristic understatement, at an Indian restaurant in Washington Heights. He spoke so softly that I worried my recorder wouldn’t capture his voice.

Tall and gangly, with thick-rimmed glasses and a boyish haircut, the 36-year-old took long, deliberate pauses throughout our conversation, and he rarely laughed or smiled. “One time a friend asked him why he takes so long to respond to questions,” said the drummer Jim Black, whose trio includes Morgan and the pianist Elias Stemeseder. “He said, ‘I’m trying to find the universal answer.’”

The idea of the universal appears to take up much of Morgan’s headspace. He likes, for instance, to buy original cast albums from old musicals like Carousel and Oklahoma, so he can hear how the composer imagined the harmonies. He once wrote a song in Esperanto, the constructed language, and he’s well versed in computer-programming languages (his father was a computer-science professor). At one point, he set about creating a new font by replacing Roman letters with Georgian and Armenian letters—both designed by the same person, Morgan pointed out. “That was, if nothing else, a lesson in how much expertise is needed to produce readable screen fonts,” he wrote me in an email.

Musicians speak about playing with Morgan in almost metaphysical terms, as though he were a mind reader. “We did two sets of improvised music at the Cornelia Street Café, and that felt incredible,” Black recalled. “I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience where it felt that together, or that close.”

The guitarist Bill Frisell, with whom Morgan frequently collaborates—their intimate ECM record, Small Town, was one of the finer duo albums released last year—expressed a similar feeling. “There’s an actual physical sensation when I play with him,” Frisell said. “It almost feels like he’s connected to my hands.”

Thomas Morgan and Bill Frisell (photo by Lynne Harty/ECM Records)
Thomas Morgan and Bill Frisell (photo by Lynne Harty/ECM Records)

In 2004, Frisell recalled, the drummer Kenny Wollesen brought together a large group of musicians for a recording session at the Hit Factory, in New York. There were rappers, percussionists, trombonists; Butch Morris was conducting. “It was pretty chaotic,” Frisell told me. “In the midst of all this, there was Thomas, way off somewhere.” Frisell remembers looking up from his guitar and hearing one perfect note emanate from Morgan’s bass. “It wasn’t like it was loud or forceful,” he said. “It was just where it was placed.” The situation was disorienting, but Morgan, in his early 20s at the time, had deciphered it. “He found some sort of key,” Frisell said, “that was able to cut through all of it.”

When Morgan moved to New York, in 2000, he was 18 and almost entirely unfamiliar with the language of modern jazz. “I basically didn’t know anything that had happened at all recently,” he said. Having grown up in Hayward, Calif., just under a half hour south of Oakland, Morgan had taken his time parsing the music, after having been introduced to his instrument by the bassist Todd Sickafoose at a music camp in his early teens. “I would have periods where I focused on one particular musician for a year or so,” Morgan said.

Most of them were typical: Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery, Keith Jarrett, Ahmad Jamal. What’s striking about Morgan’s list is its lack of bassists. He explained that the bassist who means the most to him is the late Ray Brown, who was in his day one of the most widely recorded musicians in jazz. Brown’s sound was deep, warm, unmistakable, and his sense of time was immaculate, especially with Oscar Peterson, though Morgan gravitated toward Brown’s trio records with Count Basie and Cedar Walton. “He could put the beat anywhere,” Morgan said, “and with that sound it would feel like the right place to put it.”

Morgan took one lesson with Brown, in 2001, upstairs at the Blue Note. He learned how to create upward momentum in a walking line, among other technical things. Curiously, though, Brown’s influence doesn’t extend to Morgan’s sound or style; his reserved persona puts him more in line with the late bassist Charlie Haden. The connection was evident on a recent evening at Korzo, in Brooklyn, as he eased his way into a set with the alto saxophonist Michaël Attias and the drummer Billy Mintz. Leaning into his bass, his eyes closed in concentration, Morgan played a droning pattern that recalled Haden’s haunting pedal tone from “Lonely Woman,” on Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Morgan is aware of the connection, which is why, when he was new on the scene, he steered clear of Haden’s recordings. “I felt like maybe it would be a dangerous thing to listen to him too much, because I’m similar to him in temperament,” Morgan said. “It was safe to listen to Ray Brown, in a way, because I would never really sound like him.”

When he arrived in New York Morgan quickly found work, with a diverse set of musicians—Dan Weiss, Miguel Zenón, Ohad Talmor—most of whom had recently graduated from the Manhattan School of Music, where Morgan was studying. The network kept him busy, but the music required some adjusting to. The complex rhythms he had to learn, for instance—a bar of 5/8 mixed in with a more common meter—were tricky to master. But he found his stride, particularly after he met the drummer Paul Motian and the pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, two Zen masters of jazz who asked a lot of questions whose answers weren’t immediately apparent.

Masabumi Kikuchi, Paul Motian and Thomas Morgan (from left) (photo by John Rogers/ECM)
Masabumi Kikuchi, Paul Motian and Thomas Morgan (from left) (photo by John Rogers/ECM)

“I felt like I had to learn something to be able to play with them,” Morgan said. “I like that kind of situation.” With Motian, who died in 2011, it was about close listening. With Kikuchi, whose nickname was Poo, it was about reacting in the moment and developing a heightened sense of receptivity to the things that are going on around you. “Poo liked to talk about dynamics,” said Morgan, who played on Kikuchi’s final studio record, Sunrise, a trio date with Motian released on ECM in 2012. “His definition of that was not really the common musical definition, but rather the idea of change over time, and it seemed like his music was about that.”

Morgan spent a lot of time playing with Kikuchi, who died in 2015, and the guitarist Todd Neufeld at Kikuchi’s loft in Chelsea. Everything was recorded, Morgan said, but the recordings haven’t been released.

Lately, Morgan has been performing and recording at the same breakneck pace he’s maintained since the early aughts. He is set to appear on a slew of forthcoming records. There’s one with the guitarist Steve Cardenas on the Newvelle label, with compositions by Motian and, yes, Charlie Haden. Another is with the composer and musician Henry Threadgill, on Pi Recordings. A few more are on ECM, with the guitarist Jakob Bro, the drummer Joey Baron and the pianist Giovanni Guidi. Yet another, in the works, is with the pianist David Virelles.

Morgan has also been focusing on his own projects, which suggests that he may finally put out a record under his own name. In December, he performed an hour-long solo set at Ibeam Brooklyn. He was accompanied by his laptop, on which he had set up a computer program to unleash a series of floating digital sounds for which his bass served as a kind of ballast. It was one of the first instances in which Morgan has performed as a leader since 2014, when he led a trio at Seeds, in Prospect Heights, with the keyboardist Pete Rende and the drummer Dan Weiss.

Though Morgan has been tinkering with his laptop music on and off for a while now, it was only the second time he had performed it live; the first, he said, was just a month before, in Denmark. In order to produce each digital sound, he uses a program called SuperCollider to create what are basically musical algorithms he can respond to in real time. It’s a process, though. Morgan said he is still trying to figure out how to interact with the computer in a way that doesn’t feel entirely forced. If he’s taking his time with it, it may be because he hasn’t yet found the universal answer.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Small Town by Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan on iTunes.