Joe Morris gets around
by Ed Hazell
Has any other improviser had a year comparable to that of guitarist Joe Morris?
It's doubtful. The Boston-area veteran has no fewer than five new CDs on the
racks at present, including Invisible Weave (No More) a duet with
bassist William Parker; String (Leo), a duet with Ivo Perelman (playing
cello, not his usual saxophone); and Antennae (Aum Fidelity), a new trio
release. And this Wednesday Morris will celebrate the release of two other
albums -- You Be Me (Soul Note), by his quartet featuring violinist Matt
Maneri, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Curt Newton; and Thesis
(Hatology), a breathtaking duet with pianist Matt Shipp -- with a show at MIT's
For my money, Joe Morris is the most exciting guitarist working in the jazz
tradition. Without any effects boxes or delays -- just flesh against wire -- he
creates music of great power and subtle nuance. He's translated the steely,
no-nonsense intensity of the great blues guitarists into a new-music setting
that swings. No other guitarist places notes in relationship to a beat as
Morris does, or uses dynamics to create a pulsing sensation in lines in quite
the same way. Morris accelerates and decelerates against the prevailing tempo
to create a unique sense of elastic tension. He traces erratic, unpredictable
melodic contours full of breaks and discontinuities that are as revelatory as
the sudden insightful connections he makes between seemingly disparate phrases.
In a Morris solo, chains of short, tightly packed, invitingly rounded phrases
erupt with startling force into nasty spikes of agitated, wide intervals.
But for all his volatility, Morris never loses track of a performance's
overall shape. That's thanks in part to his compositions: he excels at
structures that both guide and liberate musicians. The several sections of "You
Be Me" not only provide a narrative framework for the soloists but also help
drummer Curt Newton and bassist Nate McBride shape the underpinnings of the
music and unify the entire performance. "Deep Discount" allows for duets
between Maneri and McBride, and between Morris and Newton, that afford the
piece an uncluttered yet varied flow.
It's the conversational give-and-take within the group that makes You Be
Me such a satisfying experience. On the collectively developed "Real
Reason," the instrumental colors bleed into one another with deceptive ease.
The band proceed in parallel voicings -- or else the jagged, broken lines fit
together like a puzzle whose pieces are continually changing shape. This is a
group with flexible interconnections that stretch and bend but never break.
They hold most tightly together at precisely those moments it seems they must
fly apart. This sense of communion comes from more than craft; its origins lie
in a fundamental spirituality at the heart of music in the African-American
Morris and pianist Matthew Shipp establish a similarly deep level of
communication from the opening seconds of Thesis. On Morris's 1996
quartet release, Elsewhere (Homestead), they displayed the same
exhilarating willingness to take risks and challenge each other. On
Thesis, the pair seem guided not by conscious design but by more
mysterious and powerful forces. Which isn't to say there's not a high level of
conscious artistry present in this darkly beautiful, even majestic, album. Once
again, Morris's unique rhythmic and dynamic inflections create an instantly
identifiable sound. Shipp's expansive vocabulary embraces classical elements as
well as jazz, and the rhythmic precision of his playing also points to new ways
to swing the music. But what sets this performance apart is the daring,
headlong way they throw themselves on the moment. An uncanny intuitive link --
built on mutual trust, faith in a higher power, reckless abandon, who knows? --
seems to tether them together even on furiously energetic tracks like "Thesis,"
"The Wand," and "Simple Relations." Shipp's recent series of duet recordings
has paired him with bassist William Parker and saxophonists Rob Brown and
Roscoe Mitchell, but this meeting with Morris may be the best so far.
The Joe Morris Quartet with Mat Maneri, Nate McBride, and Jerome Deupree
and the Matthew Shipp duo with Joe Morris perform at MIT's Killian Hall this
Wednesday, October 29, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 at the door. Call (781)