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Smokin' Joe

Morris begins to make his mark on the world

by Ed Hazell

Between 1983 and 1992, with a series of five self-produced albums, Joe Morris established himself as one of the most important new-jazz guitarists in the US. More recently, independent labels in Europe and America have caught on, releasing, if not exactly a flood, at least a stream of new recordings by the Boston-area guitarist. With Elsewhere (Homestead), a stunning new quartet album featuring a New York-based band, and Three Men Walking (ECM), a poetic trio album with Boston-area free improvisers Joe and Mat Maneri, Morris not only continues to assert his originality, he displays his versatility as well.

Morris is the archetypal jazz maverick. In the '80s, he set himself apart from prevailing trends, leaving fuzzboxes and other foot pedals alone, concentrating on the pure sound of his guitar. He also kept his distance from the postmodern genre blenders, rejecting psychedelic country-and-western/reggae/hip-hop medleys for the development of his own strong voice.

African and African-American influences are embedded in his music, but no historical or cultural element predominates. The blues and polyrhythms are part of his fabric, and so are swing and a predilection for elaborate, elegant form. You might also hear echoes of alto-saxophonist Jimmy Lyons in his supple melodies, which rarely travel in a straight, smooth line but ping-pong over wide intervals and make right-angle turns at the damnedest times. His tone is narrow and tight, bright in the upper registers and dark -- at times menacing -- in the lower. Pared down to essentials, his music has clarity, purity, and honesty that few can equal.

On Elsewhere, Morris is in the company of equals: pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, and drummer Whit Dickey, who at the time were a working trio and members of the David S. Ware Quartet. Morris had played or recorded previously with all of them in different combinations, so they immediately click. Their familiarity with one another results in a volatile music that remains in an energized state of fluid motion only the best improvisers can sustain.

On the title track, Morris uses a series of elaborations on an initial idea, lengthening phrases, diverting them into tangents, accelerating and decelerating lithe lines, then circling back. He'll sometimes fixate on a riff and exhaust it before barreling ahead. "Mind's Eye" displays the same mastery of pacing, note placement, and tone color. And he swings in the deepest sense of the word.

Morris swirls through a molten matrix generated by the quartet. Shipp displays uncanny insight into the shape of Morris's lines and the development of his solos. The pianist's chords and contrapuntal melodies are unfailingly supportive, adding definition to the unfolding music. Parker, who is always in perfect harmony with the pulse and energy level, finds his own path; he is an improviser who contributes most when acting independently. Dickey is often a subliminal presence, but a vital one, dispersing the beat but never losing the music's underlying pulse.

On Three Men Walking, the trio of Morris, reed player Joe Maneri, and violinist Mat Maneri focus on color, subtle dynamics, and idiosyncratic movement. Their chamber free jazz is elliptical and oddly affecting, an epic poem told in haiku stanzas. With his amalgam of microtonal music, Greek and Middle European folk music, contemporary classical, and free jazz, Maneri conjures up enormous feeling with small gestures. After years of playing together, not to mention their father-son bond, Joe and Mat Maneri enjoy an unusual sympathy. On "Let Me Tell You," Mat coaxes quiet drones from his custom-made six-string violin, making minute shifts in voicing to shade the elder Maneri's peripatetic clarinet solo. Morris's needle-sharp melodies penetrate the mysterious fog of clarinet moans and the velvety haze of violin tones. Unaccompanied solos by each musician are interspersed throughout the album, but it's elusive trio improvisations like "Deep Paths" and "Arc and Point" that linger in the mind.

It would be tempting to say that there's a renaissance in the Boston free-jazz and improvised music scene. The truth is, Morris and Maneri, and a handful of other talented Boston-area players, have been performing at this level for years. Now the rest of the world is hearing them.

The Joe Morris Quartet with Mat Maneri plays at the Willow Jazz Club, at 699 Broadway in Somerville, tonight, September 19. Call 623-9874.

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