The Boston Phoenix
March 4 - 11, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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Getting naked

Joe Morris's guitar jazz is as serious as your life

by Jon Garelick

In the late '70s and early '80s, Joe Morris (who brings his quartet to the Regattabar this Wednesday) haunted the Boston and Cambridge jazz scene like a hungry wolf -- skinny and bearded, with shaggy brown hair and deep-set brown eyes. From the very beginning -- he moved here to play jazz guitar in 1975 -- he was part of the fringes, rehearsing and playing with people like drummers Tim Roberts and Sam Bennett, later with the pianist Lowell Davidson, and working as something of a jazz activist in the Boston Improvisers Group, organizing concerts. Morris was known to be single-minded in his devotion to his music, and somewhat temperamental.

In nearly 25 years, nothing much has changed. Although he's well-recognized as a star among Boston jazzheads, Morris still operates on the music's fringes. His frame has filled out some, he's chopped off a bit of his mane (though not his beard), and his conversation is punctuated with soft, easy, self-aware laughter. He still has little patience for the kind of jazz he calls "Disneyland -- where there's a fake Main Street that's just like it was 100 years ago and fake birds singing in the trees," and he's ever-cautious about his own temper. "As much as I'm a happily married middle-class guy, there's still a part of me that will tell anybody to fuck off -- like, in a second -- unless I really watch it." There's another difference too. Morris has fulfilled a lifelong ambition: to sound like no one but himself. And he's joined an elite company of contemporary guitarists: Derek Bailey, Sonny Sharrock, James "Blood" Ulmer -- each of whom has fashioned his own language.

If that sounds like an esoteric crowd, it's no wonder. Morris's music comes replete with the most intimidating elements of the avant-garde: babbling passages of "free" collective improvisation that seem to obey no readily accessible laws of harmony or rhythm. What's more, he hasn't adopted any of the avant-garde's more crowd-pleasing excesses. The all-out high-velocity assault of mature Cecil Taylor or late Coltrane appeals to indie-rock crowds in a way that Morris's carefully calibrated group dynamics and taste for medium tempos probably won't. And even though he uses the rock instrument of choice -- the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar -- he employs none of the electronic devices, or sheer volume, that could draw a rock audience. Instead, he prefers a full-bodied but unembellished tone that has more to do with Kenny Burrell or Jim Hall than John McLaughlin or Sonny Sharrock. "Naked," he calls it. "The instrument can sound really terrible when you take it naked, but it can sound much worse when you plug devices in."

Get into Morris's growing body of recordings, though, and you find work that's not only formally rigorous (the Penguin Guide to Jazz describes him approvingly as "a stern self-disciplinarian") but deeply emotional. For one, there's that "naked" guitar tone. It can ping with bell-like resonance or buzz in deep clusters of lower-register warbling (Morris's middle and lower register are particularly vibrant). And it can take on any number of vocal-like phrasings and shadings (West African kora and string playing is one specific, important influence).

For another, there's Morris's original compositions: angular, often brooding melody lines, full of sharp angles, odd intervals, unpredictable silences. The title track from his new A Cloud of Black Birds (AUM Fidelity), for all its eccentricities, has the familiarity of a 12-bar blues, with an easy, loping 4/4 swing. But the album's opener, "Threshold," is a kind of stark, multi-sectioned epic. Everyone -- guitar, violin, bass, drums -- states the opening section in unison, then a secondary theme follows with guitar and violin over clattering out-of-tempo drums and bassist Chris Lightcap's steady pulse. The piece undergoes all manner of changes -- frenzied soloing by Morris with background "comping" by violinist Mat Maneri, and then a quick reversal of roles when Maneri breaks into agitated sawing, some quiet passages, a bass solo, the return of a more reflective Morris. When the theme returns, it's newly poignant in a way that's unusual for jazz performances, where the tune is often merely a set of chord changes to blow on. When a Morris band performance is working at full tilt, the piece is about that melody, and it accrues meaning through improvisation. The theme sounds different at the end because of all it's been through -- a bass solo, a guitar/drum duet. You can almost think of it as the analogue of a novel or short story with the theme as the protagonist: it enters at measure one and by the final note has been transformed. Another way to think of it is that four friends have returned home after sharing a deep experience.

"I try to make the melodic material really specific, so that if you just play the melodic material, you're all clued in, you don't have to know anything else about the tune," Morris tells me when we get together for dinner in Central Square. "Just play that and then refer to it when you're playing. It's that simple. I've had arguments with guys in my band. I say: no, the theme is more staccato, if you don't play it staccato, it sounds like this other piece. Or, if you rush into that section, you blow the whole characteristic of the tune." In our conversation, Morris refers to those melodies as "templates."

There are, of course, more freely improvised pieces -- where Morris "triggers" the other players with a line that hasn't been shared ahead of time, or by leaving space where there will be a drum or bass solo. "Ellington did stuff like that all the time: let's play off of C, but we're going to have a violin/drum duet." At times, the pleasure of a Morris piece comes in the way the musicians discover its structure as they play, like cogs coming together in a delicate watch-like mechanism. At other times the effect is of overhearing spirited, lucid four-way conversation in another tongue, three men kibitzing over a card game while a fourth solo voice steps to one side and comments on the weather.

Morris's music is handmade; he's almost completely self-taught. He discusses the particulars of his chaotic childhood in the liner notes to A Cloud of Black Birds, a childhood and young adulthood full of poverty, truancy, periods of homelessness. It's a stark, concise account and -- like his music -- completely devoid of sentimentality or self-pity. At 14, he writes, he was in a Connecticut school for wayward children, one step away from reform school. "I spent as much time as I could alone in my room looking out the window and thinking about the fact that I had hit bottom already in my short life."

He continues: "My room looked out over a meadow to the tree-lined edge and the woods beyond. This was in the month of October. The leaves were changing colors and the wind was blowing hard. Every afternoon I watched large flocks of cross-migrating starlings fly from one side of the field to the other and from tree to tree. Their collective movement was held together by a loud and seemingly chaotic sense of order."

The descriptive elements here are worthy of Raymond Carver or early Hemingway, and the material itself is something an artist can spend a lifetime unraveling. And the imagery is a kind of "template" for the music Morris makes (titles like "Two Buses and a Long Walk" refer specifically to his time at that school).

"Since I've been in this music," Morris tells me, "I've met a whole lot of people who would understand that whole story completely and a whole lot who think you're scum because you had to go through that stuff." He laughs and pauses. "They don't get that some people do it [music] because they have to. A guy like [bassist] William Parker -- he became a musician because that was the only way he could survive. That's what his album In Order To Survive (AUM Fidelity) is about. He has almost an identical reason for being a musician as me, even though his life was different. That was his way of bringing dignity into his life, and that's why he did it."

Morris tells me that he never finished either grammar school or high school -- "I don't have any diplomas from anywhere." Since he had no money or education, the usual options of conservatory or music school were not available to him. "I was even afraid to get a student loan because I was afraid to let anyone know what I'd been through. . . . It's always been that this is the only thing that I could do that would give me a sense of place. I couldn't become a doctor and distinguish myself in that. This seemed available to me. One of the reasons I've always identified with black musicians is that I know a lot of them who did it for a way to get out of their situation, and I respect that. I would never want to compare my situation to theirs, it's a different thing. But I relate to it -- as a way to bring in certain things in your life and not have to conform. It's amazing that this lets you do that." Thinking about his liner notes to A Cloud of Black Birds, he says, "I want to show that my music is about my life. . . . I don't want to write incidental music to my life story."

Over the years, Morris has received enough bits of encouragement at just the right moments -- from people like John Scofield and Derek Bailey. He's found a growing coterie of players to work with and, in the past few years, has released a spate of recordings on indie labels like AUM, Soul Note, Knitting Factory, Leo Lab, and his own Riti label. The well-regarded Three Men Walking (1997), where he joins violinist Mat Maneri and Mat's father, New England Conservatory prof and microtonal wizard Joe Maneri, was recorded by the chic BMG-distributed ECM.

"I've always wanted to put the guitar in a modern context and keep it jazz," he says. "I didn't want to throw everything out. I talked to Derek Bailey about that last fall in England. He told me he couldn't think of that many free-guitar players who played jazz besides me. And I said I really want to be a jazz musician! The freedom is built right into the tradition. That informs my whole experience: you do what you want!"

The Joe Morris Quartet appears with the Fully Celebrated Orchestra at the Regattabar this Wednesday, March 10. Call 876-7777.

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