WeatherBird by Gary Giddins - New Tunes for an Old Ax
originally appeared in the VILLAGE VOICE - November 11, 1997
Joe Morris, the 42-year old New Haven-born guitaritst, is an original-he plays his weathered, compact black Gibson, like no one else. But his originality stems in part from the unlikeliness of his inspiritations. He doesn't play generic guitar music, having adapted precepts, concepts, and even phrases from musicians who play piano, saxophone, and other instruments. This sort of thing is not unusual in jazz. Roy Eldridge sounded like no other trumpet player in the 1930s because he siphoned many of his ideas from saxophonists, teaching himself to play as fast as they, but with the trumpet's unique brilliance range. Morris has gone to the avant-garde well to test the brink of improvisational reason, but at the same time developed a quintessential jazz-guitar tone, dark and dulcer, its vibrato squarely modulated and inimical to sonic overkill. If Ornette Coleman were Jim Hall, he would be Joe Morris.
At three recent evenings at the Knitting Factory, his trio offered a retrospective of origianl compositions, from the 1983 "Sweep Out" (on the vinyl-only Wraparound, self released on his Riti label) to most of the pieces on Antennae (Aum Fidelity), out this week. As impressive as the diversity was the consistency-the recordings, mostly duos and trios with one solo and a couple of quartets. The most conspicuous ringer is the trio Sweatshop (Riti), recorded in 1988 and 1990, with an electric bass guitar and a Hendrixian edginess that is wonderfully lustrous and direct. Sweatshop may be the easiest point of entry for many, but Morris abandoned that direction for his natural introverted style, where coils of melody and pockets of riffs are cycled over a head-nodding pulse.
Pulse doesn't mean countable time. One of the most engaging qualities of Morris's music is its evasion of four. Sometimes the trio gives the illusion of extended rubato, but the pulse is almost always there, constant and methodic. His most alluring piece, "Lowell's House," introduced on Symbolic Gesture (1993, Soul Note) but greatly expanded in performance, centers on an eight-measure theme with an understated backbeat and a legato pull-Morris subtly tips the rhythmic feeling of his music by accenting a note the instant before of after you expect. At the Knit (actually the Alterknit), the theme emerged tenuously from a muted, minor-key, vaguely Spanish setting and faded into a realm of free-time variations, reappearing often enough to stabilize the work's melodic spell. Yet while the backbeat slid in and out , the pulse remained staunch. Here and elsewhere, the trio plays rhythmically free while sustaining a kind of perpetual one/one beat.
In several of his liner notes, Morris mentions Cecil Taylor and musicians in Taylor's orbit as primary influences, a fairly provacative notion. For the most part the connection is obscured by the limitations of the guitar and by Morris's sense of order, which is a lot less providential and dynamic than Taylor's. Charlier Parker and Charles Mingus both named Art Tatum as a formative influence, but they transmuted his harmonic ingeniuty into something radically different-from Tatum and from each other. Morris's connection to Taylor is is most evident when he plays alone, as in his solo disc, No Vertigo (1995, Leo), where he is heard on acoustic guitar, mandolin, and banjouke, In addition to increased density, compensating for the absence of bass. and drums, he explores plucky a harmonic figures of short duration thar are not unlike Taylor's flurries. On "Equilibrium," Morris flirts from mood, busy here, spare there. If you have ever wondered what Taylor would sound like if he were Bill Monroe (something I'd pondered for years myself), the answer is "Found in the Ground": Cecilian fragments adapted to the keening pitch of the mandolin.
Still, Morris is most at home with the electric guitar, on which his notes are invariably personal, polished, controlled, and lived in. He can get a cold lifelike edge or a warm buzzy center, but the sound is always his, private and deliberate. At times, his playing is almost reclusive, confidently reticent, as though he were quietly typing his phrases, or nibbling them off the cob. But he tends to avoid the pitfall of noodling by the improvisational design of his solos, an alteration of knotty melodic figures and vigorous riffs that crop up like punctuations. In this, he is less beholden to Taylor than to Ornette Coleman-those riffs often alight with Colemanís special buoyancy, but without the wail. Morris works high on the frets. His left hand will remain in one position for the better part of a solo, finding-with whopping speed and infallible accuracy-an uncanny number of places to go in the space of those three or four frets. He assiduously avoids high-note effects, melodramatic slides, and other blues/rock conventions. In the bottom octaves, he uses such techniques as the low-E drone (hello Duane Eddy) to blend with the bass, creating a 10-string hybrid.
The big challenge for Downtown improvisers in the aftermath of emotionalist outpourings is melody. Harmony and rhythm, however much they function as structural absolutes, ultimately support a sequence of notes that is either persuasive or dull, Morris belongs to a generation of musicians that strives to avoid familiar melodic ideas, employing blues locutions, riffs, and dynamics, as well as coming up with fresh tunes that compel attention even if you can't sing them in the shower. One of those players is Matthew Shipp, who drives and is driven by Morris in their mutual pursuit of novel combinations of notes. If Shipp often resorts to two-fisted chords, his linear phrases are the nub of his art, and in Morris he has a like-minded explorer. On Morris's Elsewhere (1996, Homestead), with bassist William Parker and drummer Whit Dickey, and Shipp's Thesis (1997, hatOLOGY), where Morris probes the pianist's originals, the interaction is tenacious enough to suggest an illusory orthodoxy, swinging and stately. You could hardly ask for a better example of the postballad ballad than Thesis's "Broader Orders," where the forest is familiar and the trees are alien.
Morris works from an even closer bond in his excellent trio, heard at the Knit and on the exemplary Antennae, which burns with a perverse intentionality, as if even the ad lib episodes were ordained. It begins with the bouncy intervals of "Synapse" and pushes into deeper waters with the title selection, played in proximate unison by guitar, arco bass, and drums. Morris's solo has a nearly verbal thrust, chatty but focused. Jerome Deupree is obviously well acquainted with the intensity Morris can generate, and he lays out with as much elan as he digs in. He could be more decisive at times, but he is deftly alert, effecting split-second change-ups on a good riffs-run-amok tune, "Stare Into a Lightbulb for Three Years." Nate McBride is a gifted bassist, a onetime student of Cecil McBee, who has some of William Parker's teeming audacity. His solo on "Virtual Whatever" is the piece's flashpoint, a strenuously strummed midrange cascade of notes. He yanks the strings horizontally instead of vertically from the wood, and gets a surprisingly warm and pitch-accurate result that he tweaks with twangy asides from the Delta. He and Morris have uncommonly sensitive rapport, and the nerviness of the music is heightened in their entwined virtuosity. Morris's playing can be airless, a rest-free maze of configurations refueled by wily riffs, but once you make the leap it's easy to find your way. The main thing is he doesn't bore.