'JOE MORRIS' from MOD Magazine / story by Steve Brydges

To look at the man, one wouldn't suspect him to be a musical genius, a man whose fingers resemble a whirling dervish whence placed upon his guitar. With a beard, an agreeable smile and a quiet, rugged handsomeness befitting a man who works construction by day, Joe Morris defies conventional and orthodoxical musical ideas by night with his guitar mastery. A man who clearly thinks before he speaks yet can roll quick with the extemporaneous insights, Morris is not only deeply knowledgeable about of jazz, but also full of wisdom and passion for his art.

"Dealing in a jazz context is really a very deliberate act, even when it sounds very random," said Morris. "It is really difficult. Anybody who plays music can tell you, it is really hard to play in a way that's truly random. You have be really knowledgeable and really deep as a musician to play in a way that sounds like it is not connected. It is really difficult to be that free. Jazz is really the kind of art form that forces you to deal with that issue all the time. You have to always try to go past where you are, and not past where you are in the sense of being contrived. You can't say now, 'Well for this type of thing, I will do that, and my career will move along this way. I think the audience would really dig this if I did that.' It's really about what can you do to peel away that next layer of understanding of what the aesthetic is. It is really a high art. It's more like poetry than show business. It's about trying to connect to something that feels meaningful in a way that's not phony and not contrived."

Sound complicated? Even after talking with him on several different occasions, my mind still raced with questions. How does one connect to something that furthers their understanding of the art form's aesthetic, yet play in a way that sounds disconnected? How can one compel oneself to reach another level without forcing oneself to change, which would be contrived or produced? How does one self-actualize without realizing it while the actualization is taking place?

"What you do is you set up musical structures that let you think freely. It's rare that anybody can just get up and play whatever they want two nights in a row and not have some repeat in it. There's really never been anybody that does that. Everybody that plays this kind of music has, at least, an internalized system for how they do it. It is almost like standing up and improvising a monologue. You do that- you know what you're gonna say, but you don't know exactly how you're going to put it together. It is like talking. What you want to do is speak fluently about a subject you think is meaningful. So you have to get very much in touch with your instrument so you can do that. You have to associate with other musicians who are in touch with their instruments. You all have to share that idea so that you sound cohesive. It involves a lot of detailed understanding, a lot of study, but not studying like going to school studying. It's- bohemian, you know? You hang out with people, you have to read what people have said you have to discuss it with other people. It is like any other subculture that has ever existed where people understand some kind of truth that the rest of the world doesn't necessarily understand. It is really about everything in the rest of the world, but the language that organizes it is pretty rarefied."

Unless you read into that quote, the answer may escape you. It lies not merely within the study of free jazz, but within the student. Joe Morris is a student of free jazz music. He has studied the past works of great musicians, played with countless peers, and has practiced his craft for endless hours, all in an effort to lose himself in his knowledge of the study. The ability to lose oneself in the moment of actualization lies deep within one's mind. The key to unlocking it is to not have to think about the processes involved. One cannot lose oneself in the moment if they are completely caught up in the mechanics.

This is not to say Joe Morris is unaware of his surroundings while he is playing. To the contrary, Morris feeds off of the energy and communication flowing from his players' instruments, just as they feed off of him. These intuitive interactions create a focal point from which their common understanding and unique perspectives may form fluid yet jarring, dizzying yet focused and abstract yet integral pieces of music.

On stage, he stands almost motionless, save for the blur of his hands as they work his guitar. His strings of busy, often fractured melodies spin, dart, race, and evolve as the sounds fly from his amplifier. His clean notes strike the ears like sharp tacks, each one piercing the eardrum and denoting a mark in the melody's complex pattern. With eyes closed, he plays and senses, playing to and off his bandmates. As their individual and collective energies rise, the feelings transform the stage into a Zenlike temple. His physical stillness belies a racing mind.

"If you're using all your energy in your body movements, your instrument can't say anything. You really have to be in touch with your sense of breathing and your sense of pacing, so you can get through it," Morris said of his intense sets. "That's why a lot of musicians really relate to athletes, because they know it is very physical. They know there's a point where you just can't play the fourth quarter (laughs) of the championship game, unless you find a space inside of yourself that's relaxed, despite all of the pressure. It's a lot like that."

Like these professional athletes, musicians playing in such an intensified context rely upon their center to allow them to relax yet perform with utmost proficiency.

"There's a center in there, and I think that is the main sensual reason people get into playing. It feels incredible. When you know people are listening and you're really into it, and everyone is really playing great, and you know you're doing things you haven't been able to do before- you know the music is pushing the envelope as far as it can- there's nothing better than doing that. There's nothing better."

Free jazz music has suffered many misinterpretations due to the difficulty of the music and the subgenre's deceivingly simplistic title. To many, "free jazz" means to do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it. To others, it means a completely improvised setting where no one person is the leader. To still others, it is a bunch of noise, a cacophony created by unyielding blowhards intent on drowning out other players' voices with theirs. In truth, "free jazz" merely implies freedom from relying upon chords or other dictates commonly used to structure one's pieces.

Explains Morris, "I think the 'free' is really used because right before people started using that kind of system, which is a system, they were using chord changes, and just using the notes within the chord changes. They said, 'Well, we can play more than just the notes in the chord changes.' Then it became that they said they don't even have to play chord changes. When they said free, they meant they're just not using chord changes. A lot of people who used to play what is classified as free jazz, used chord changes a lot, just because it is something else you can use. If you are going to be free, you don't want to not do something. (Laughs). You want to be able to do whatever you want."

Having recorded ten records in just the past two years, Morris is a tireless practitioner of his study. He has played in various group settings, with the most recent being his Trio record "Antennae," on AUMfidelity with bassist Nate McBride and drummer Jerome DuPree. "Antennae," according to Morris, is a sensible starting point for those seeking out Morris' music. He believes those who can and will grasp the sounds on "Antennae" will then be able to extend that comprehension to the dense and intense nature of his quartet record "Elsewhere," recorded a year earlier and released on Homestead Records. "Antennae's" slower, more swinging pieces will appeal to those not accustomed to free jazz's brilliant sustained flashes of intense communication, but are looking for something deeper than what is currently presented in popular music.

It is possible for every single aspect of Morris' music to sound foreign to a person new to free jazz, especially one not familiar to the sound of a guitar player ripping as complicated and busy streams of sound as Morris does throughout his pointed suites. Even my first experience with "Elsewhere" was one of total distaste. Coming from an indie rock aesthetic, where solos and virtuosity are completely foreign to indie's amateurish and team player mentalities, Morris' talent and message had fallen on my deaf ears. A good friend said that I should think of his guitar as a saxophone, as if to imply the message, if not the messenger was the same. It didn't work at the time. "Antennae" was my second chance, and this time Morris' impression stuck. I was now enthralled by his music, and I owe no small debt of gratitude to AUMfidelity owner Steven Joerg and the music of the likes of bassist Henry Grimes, sax players Albert Ayler, David S. Ware and Charles Tyler, and pianist Matthew Shipp for widening my perception of free jazz. From Joerg's encouragement and the named players' (among others) visionary music, my mind was opened up to an boundless range of sounds, progressions, tones and theories of dynamics.

As complicated and imposing as Morris' music is at first, it is not without its patterns and formulations. Melody is far from absent. Rhythm, as Morris earlier said, is wholly at center of his music.

"Basically, what we do is we play melodies that are essentially shapes," explained Morris. "We improvise off of those shapes melodically. We play in phrase lengths, similar to talking in sentences and paragraphs. At the end of a phrase, someone punctuates the phrase. It (a fast guitar melody) might go 'ba-bo-ba-da-ba-di-do-ba,' and then you hear 'chj-om chj-chji-dom' (a thrusting percussion punctuation), because we know we have a few more beats we can push, before we really need to have some kind of an accent. We studied all that, so we know, and we feel it.

"You will be able to understand it all, and you will hear the material we're playing off of. We're always playing off of material. It is like if someone said, 'Here's the topic. The topic is football. Now go ahead and talk about it, but never mention the word, football.' It is kind of like that. With this kind of music, people say, 'O.K., 1,2,3,4...,' and people who are just listening to it don't know where that is, but we always know where that is," said Morris, referring to the underlying rhythm, or pulse of a piece. "(Listeners) say, 'Well you're not using any chord changes to play off of it,' but we're always using harmony when we play."

He later added, "I can sing everyone of my guitar solos on every record I ever made, because I listened to them a thousand times, and I understand the logic of them, but I never knew what they were before I did them. They're very tuneful. It is just a matter of familiarizing yourself with the music to the point where you know where it is going to go, and then do it again."

He later added, "I can sing everyone of my guitar solos on every record I ever made, because I listened to them a thousand times, and I understand the logic of them, but I never knew what they were before I did them. They're very tuneful. It is just a matter of familiarizing yourself with the music to the point where you know where it is going to go, and then do it again."

Paradoxical? Perhaps. Obscure? At first. Vital? As there ever was such a thing.