Jazz Guitarist Joe Morris Does It His Way


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By Tad Hendrickson

A jazz artist who balances a sharp ear for melody with an intellect inspired by improvisation's outer reaches, Joe Morris is part of a community of musicians who play what has been called the downtown jazz, avant-garde, free jazz or even just free music scenes. Since he began performing on guitar in 1975, he's carved out a reputation for himself that is up there with innovative guitarists including Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne and Marc Ribot. Always in search of something new and fresh, he took up the upright bass just to broaden his possibilities as a musician.

Known for leading small groups (typically on guitar), he also regularly plays bass for pianist Matthew Shipp and guitar for saxophonist David S. Ware. He's done one-offs with Anthony Braxton and Dewey Redman but is just as likely to play with a relative unknown. He's self-taught, for the most part, yet these days he can also be found teaching at the celebrated New England Conservatory in the jazz and improvisation department. He's been nominated by the Jazz Journalist Association for guitarist of the year twice (in 1998 and 2002) and has released a couple dozen albums.

It's a varied musical rsum filled with lots of highlights and no compromises. As such, his music and talent far outreach his popularity. Not that Morris cares: He's worked too hard and long to care about achieving fame, but that doesn't mean that you should dismiss his music as arty or unlistenable. It has a lot to offer for those willing to take the plunge.

Of the handful of albums issued this year under his name, the one that makes me the most excited is 'Today on Earth,' which uses the same quartet that played on 2004's 'Beautiful Existence.' The group features Morris on guitar, regular Morris drummer Luther Gray, bassist Timo Shanko and saxophonist Jim Hobbs (the latter two also play in the Fully Celebrated Orchestra). This band is Morris' best to date, diving into the lyrical and swinging aspects of his playing and writing while also being able to mix it up with the guitarist when he heads into parts unknown.

“Every time these guys pick up their instruments they play at their highest level," says Morris with pride. “I have total confidence in those guys. There is no suggestion from me, no adjustment in their playing. It goes back to that Duke Ellington method where you write for yourself and the people you play with. All I have to do is give them the music and it's gonna be beautiful."

Getting to the bottom of Morris' music is no easy task, and it doesn't help that his musical philosophy is like his playing: deep and multifaceted. When complimented on the ballads from the new record, his response is:

“Anything that's slow that I write--which might be construed as a ballad--I think they are simpler than they used to be. A lot of my earlier stuff implied other things than it does now. Part of the reason for this is I try to avoid repeating myself. So I'm trying to keep my written stuff as simple as possible and let my improvising stuff be whatever it is."

“But this is a loaded thing," he adds. “Simple things are often modal or very simple scales or patterns, which really lock you in to a particular way of improvising and restricts you. In a sequence of themes that's OK. But for the progression of the art form, that kind of harmonic structure can leave us stuck, and then I'll just be another person trying to imitate Coltrane."

Morris is actually often compared to Ornette Coleman, an iconoclast of the highest order who has developed his own music system called 'Harmolodics.' But where Coleman is prone to darting melodies and tearing into an idea using a series of approaches to peel it down to its essence, Morris' clean-toned guitar lines tend to be long and linear. His playing always projects a sense of forward movement regardless of the setting.

Over the years, several of Morris' albums have received rave reviews, yet he doesn't make it easy for the listener, perhaps because it has never been easy for him. Whether out of stubbornness or habit, he adamantly refuses to play the music industry game. He has his own label to sometimes release his or other musicians' music, though there are small independent labels lining up to issue his stuff. Ironically, some of his most accessible work can be his hardest to find. To top it off, instead of living in New York and networking, he lives in Connecticut with his wife and kids and doesn't gig out a whole lot these days.

“I think the free-jazz community, for lack of a better word, is sort of watered down these days," he points out. “Rather than doing a lot of gigs for nothing, I wait until I can get paid. My impression is that musicians who aren't committed to the idiom are dabbling in it, so there are a number of people trying to get those gigs rather than trying to get straight-ahead gigs, which is what they should be getting. It makes it harder to do things."

His demeanor onstage and off is amiable, but it's clear that he's not there as an entertainer. Rather, he's an artist trying to move the form forward with interesting music that is open. If you are along for the ride, great. If not, don't come to the gigs or buy the records. “If I go with what people expect me to do, I might as well just stop," Morris says with a knowing chuckle. “I've found over the years that if I do what I feel I should do and have some patience with it, I'll do OK."

This week at the
All About Jazz Web Site:

Thelonious Monk: Pianists Riff on Monk

Jonathan Kreisberg: Unearthed
Harris Eisenstadt: From Mbalax to Canada Day

Extra Mile, by Pete McCann
Think Free, by Ben Allison
Distancia, by Magos Herrera
Retrospective: The Very Best of e.s.t.
Live at Jazz Standard NYC, by Dafnis Prieto

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