Joe Morris has been slowly and steadily building a body of work that is as formidable and impressive as any guitarist who has come before him. His approach to the instrument is nothing short of revolutionary. The sheer velocity of his improvisations compares more easily to saxophonists in the tradition of Eric Dolphy than with any other guitarist in the history of the instrument’s existence. If that sounds exaggerated, go listen to his trio steamroll through vamps, grooves, and bluesy melodies and you will be one of the converted.
Since the re-emergence of his own label Riti Records in 2002, Joe has built up an impressive discography on the label, including new trios with pianist Steve Lantner, drummer Whit Dickey, and drummer Hamid Drake and bassist William Parker.
Brian Carpenter spoke with Joe Morris in this interview about his approach to the instrument, his discography, and his working trio with bassist Timo Shanko and drummer Luther Gray.
On free bop
I don’t think I’ve ever changed direction
On Timo Shanko and Jim Hobbs
Hendrix and the big loud electric guitar trilogy
The guitar’s role in free jazz
BC: Since we just heard some of the new record, I wanted to talk about this new trio. We were just listening and sort of in awe of Timo Shanko and Luther Gray. Timo’s playing on the acoustic bass seems almost inhuman at times. It must be such a great well to draw from playing with these guys.
JM: It is. They’re phenomenal musicians and they’re a ball to play with. Every period in jazz has always been built off of the platform of the rhythm section. Charlie Parker had his rhythm section. If the rhythm section didn’t operate the way they operated, it wouldn’t sound like Charlie Parker. Ornette Coleman wouldn’t sound like Ornette Coleman playing with Charlie Parker’s rhythm section. He had to have his own rhythm section. And Timo and Luther. And also Timo and Django Carranza of the Fully Celebrated Orchestra, sets up a rhythm section situation that no one else can do that I’ve heard. Anywhere. And it has every component of precision and dynamic excitement of the greatest bebop lineage. Compared to the sort of more expressionistic aspect of free jazz, this is…free bop.
BC: I see…
JM: And I’ve always played free bop. I always love free bop. I love the expressionistic area of free jazz too, and I’ve done as much of that as I could. But because I play the guitar and it sort of requires that you articulate, I like to be in an environment where I get to articulate rhythmically and melodically. And I want that to be as spectacular as I can get it. [laughing]
And I want it to be as expressionistic as I can get it. And without a doubt Timo is like the other side of my brain. I know anyone that plays with him and can keep up with him…obviously the main person that you’d associate with Timo is Jim Hobbs, who is also a genius. And anyone who’s ever played with him or heard him knows that. They’re just going to lean on Shanko and just try not to fall over. He gives you the cushiest platform to just let it go…and as long as you can hang there and keep up, it’s really like bouncing on a trampoline, it’s the easiest thing in the world. And with Luther there holding the whole thing up…it’s just a riot to play with them. We turn to each other in the middle of some incredibly fast swinging thing and just laugh. It’s just so much fun.
BC: Yes, I’ve seen that happen before [laughing]…
JM: You know, after all of the things that have happened in the last ten or twelve years in the music scene and the things I was associated with which were more expressionistic and more and more elaborate in the explanations of what it was, I really wanted to just get back to playing and trying to be spectacular…trying to make people in the audience just sort of pulled down by the tension and the release of playing. And really make it more like the kind of environment like the early Anthony Braxton ensemble, Jimmy Lyons, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette, and those kinds of musics, where things are just rhythmically bouncing along in a way that is just…superhuman.
BC: As a listener, I mean, going back and hearing Dolphy for instance, and then actually seeing the film footage of him playing with Mingus, it’s just overwhelming, you get carried away with it…
JM: Yeah, it’s just a different kind of experience. It’s almost more physical than it is psychological or mental or spiritual, in a way. But again, because Timo and Luther are so good, they have that depth in their playing and they have so much knowledge of what’s happened and so much respect for the aesthetic content of the music, and they’re such honest people….
So I think what we’re doing is not at all…I think it annoys some people. I know I’ve been trying to book things in Europe and I’ve heard back from a few people who didn’t like it. It’s too fast, or it swings too much. And I just think, good, good. Because if there’s any place that needs to hear some music that swings it’s the European new jazz scene. And eventually we’ll crack through (laughs)…we’ll break through that wall and then they’ll all get to have some joy and happiness too. In the meantime, we’ll just do what we’ve been doing, which has been playing wherever we can and kicking it.
BC: It is a different aesthetic, though. What I’m hearing in the group that is very unique is the fact that it is in fact very executed and precise but at the same time it’s still a very free music, and somehow it works in both worlds. And I can’t think of any other ensemble in new music now that is the juxtaposition of those two aesthetics that is as effective.
JM: Well, part of it is the way the tunes are written. My tunes are pretty thin. But they’re very specific. They describe the area that you go to play, and because of that I can have a wide variety in the kinds of pieces that we play without writing in a more elaborate manner. I keep it simple and I put it together the right way and edit out the parts that don’t need to be there. I edit out the parts that don’t drive us right to that spot that we’re trying to get to so that we can play differently. If we do it well and we’re on point when we play, then each piece has a different projection and each piece allows us to explore different kinds of things.
So because I’ve always worked as a free improviser and as a free jazz player, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, I know a lot about how to put things together to create environments to play in. And I’ve always had to do that because otherwise the guitar gets put into a sort of subservient role in the ensemble, it’s just the nature of the instrument and the way everyone plays. So anyone who’s played with me over the years can tell you that I’m really exact about what we’re going to use so that my instrument doesn’t get put into the rhythm guitar part. Part of my role in doing this is to put the guitar up front and let it articulate those ideas that I hear being expressed by the sort of alto voice lineage — Bird and Ornette and Braxton — which is the sort of high language in the music. The alto voice, to me, holds that better than any other, and as you follow through the theoretical aspects of the music, the alto voice leads that along. So I want the guitar to speak like the alto voice.
And if you listen to my discography, you’ll hear that each record brings that out in a different way intentionally. I can describe what each one of them is about, and each piece on each record has a specific role that it plays to bring out a part of the guitar that would otherwise be a bunch of notes. Some of them might be less distinguishable to people than others, but I think that they’re pretty clear. That’s really the nature of the body of my work is to give the guitar a very specific environment to articulate in. And to function like a string instrument! Almost like a violin or a fiddle…get up there and play the damn thing and don’t worry about comping for the horn players except sometimes, you know? And just let other people worry about that. I have the thing I wanted to do, I’ve been working on it since the early 70s, and…I survived the thinnest part of it so far.
BC: This free bop aesthetic…the guitar is a very discrete instrument in the sense that it perhaps is more difficult to be expressionistic than it would be on a saxophone. I’m wondering if this aesthetic was something you worked to, did you change direction at some point…?
JM: I don’t think I’ve ever changed direction. I think I’ve been doing the exact same thing since 1974, which is when I really started doing this. What I’ve tried to do is bring out as many characteristics of it as I can pertaining to what’s happened in the music before me, what’s happened in the music while I was doing it, things that I thought were interesting that I like to explore, things that pertain to completely free improvisation, things that pertain to structured free improvisation, to tunes, and to tunes that work in various ways within the realm of improvising. Certain tunes may suggest a harmony that I play over the top of, they might have ostinato patterns that I play over, that might be templates that carve out melodic statements, different rhythmic things…just as many things as I could think of that are distinctive from one another or a combination of something. So when the possibility was there for me to make modules of different components, I made recordings off of those. When I wanted to work on the idea of arranging my band so that certain subsets of the band were displayed in certain ways, I did that. When I wanted to play behind other instruments, I added other instruments.
So I’ve just sort of done that and ignored what anyone else said I was supposed to do. And I’m totally thrilled that I managed to accomplish what I’ve accomplished musically. I’m really happy about how it’s turned out and the people I’ve managed to play with. I’m sitting here and I know my band is incredible and they don’t even need me there. If I had a heart attack on stage they could cover for it. And there are just a whole bunch of things open for the future which are not dependent upon any kind of trend or conceptual clap-trap. I just have to try to play and when it’s time to stop, stop.
BC: How did you meet Timo, did you meet him through Hobbs, or…?
JM: Man, I saw them play on the street in 1989. Andrew Neumann and I saw Jim Hobbs with Ray Anthony and Timo playing on the street in Harvard Square. It looked like they were about eight years old and they were playing the hell out of Ornette Coleman tunes. And I remember Sebastian Steinberg, Andrew Neumann, and all saw them at the same time, and said, “Did you see those guys? Who are those guys? Those guys are unbelievable.”
And so I introduced myself to them and they started playing on gigs. I just always loved them, I always thought they were amazing. I talk about Jim Hobbs all the time because I think he’s as good as anyone who’s ever played that instrument. And he’s so good that he has to experience what everyone good has had to experience, which is that he doesn’t get anywhere near the attention he deserves, because the world of this music is all focused on silly tiny minutia and looking to find some summation of all these things that have happened, instead of saying “It just sounds good, let’s listen to it”. They’re so bogged down with the theoretical and the paper being delivered next week by some conceptualist that they forget that this is soul music. And if you want to hear some soul music, go and listen to Jim Hobbs and get that chill up your spine. I made a record with him called “Racket Club” in 1993 and there’s one piece on there called “Revolve” and he takes a solo on it and every time I hear it I get a chill up my spine, it’s blood-curdling. We did a quartet gig at the Vision Festival this year with him and I walked through the room and every musician I knew there said, “Who is that guy?” If anybody wonders what’s happened with the music go and listen to these guys, they’ve figured it out.
BC: Can you talk about the two electric ensembles you put together, Racket Club and Sweat Shop and what the concept was behind those records?
JM: Sweat Shop is 1989. Racket Club is ’93. Years ago I made a record called Human Rites and it was a really successful record. It was sold through the old new music distribution service and it got a lot of airplay and it made top ten lists all over the country. I produced it myself; it’s a double LP. And I got one review in Op Magazine (laughs)…one of the old places you could get a review…
BC: Never heard of it…
JM: It was a precursor to Option Magazine, kind of a newsprint thing. And they said the record was good but as a power trio it was weak. And I just thought, power trio? I wrote the guy a letter and I said there’s an acoustic bass on here. If I wanted to have a power trio, man, you’d hear a power trio. So I thought, okay, that’s another thing I’ve had to endure: I didn’t play like Derek Bailey like everyone told me. And I didn’t play like Blood Ulmer. Even though both of those guys are my friends and we all respect each other because we’re all different. So I said well, the hell with it. And with Sweat Shop I just did what I had been doing before I started the free jazz stuff, which was to play a kind of blues style in the open tonality.
And I thought about – you know, because I’m always thinking too much – let’s see, what’s Blood’s take on Hendrix. Because Hendrix, if you’re a guitar player, is like The Pyramids. Civilization goes up to a certain point and they built The Pyramids and that’s Hendrix. If you’re an electric guitar player, now there’s actually an icon that we can all view and it gives us reference to everything that preceded it. So you have to deal with Hendrix. But I don’t want to be one of those guys that (laughs) puts on my headband and does my fake Hendrix thing; I think that’s nonsense. It’s already been done, leave him alone. Let’s draw material out of it. Well obviously he’s a blues guitarist who put it in another environment by using different sounds, but he’s a blues guitarist. So Blood’s thing was to deal with Hendrix’s songs. Blood really comes out of Wes Montgomery. He’s an organ trio guitar player. He plays with his thumb, he plays in the same fingering position that Wes did and all of the organ trio guys did. He’s an organ trio Wes Montgomery guitar player through Hendrix through Ornette. He’s a genius, by the way…
I was always one of those guys who loved Band Of Gypsies. When everyone else was talking, “Oh, I hate Band Of Gypsies because Buddy Miles is on it…”, to me, that’s Hendrix playing the guitar like a real improviser. So I took my Band Of Gypsies knowledge and put it through my Prime Time knowledge and my open tonality knowledge and wrote some tunes and did Sweat Shop. I still think it’s one of the best records I ever made. It gets no credit in the sort of lineage of big loud electric guitar, which is fine with me, because when people finally figure out what’s happening on it, it will get its due. Sweat Shop was really about blues lines and playing the guitar almost like a blues musician. The bass is open on most of it, and the drums lay down a steady beat. So Sebastian Steinberg, Jerome Deupree and I worked that. Jerome had to stop because he got sick so Curt Newton and I and Sebastian continued.
So then I started writing all of these complicated vamps and the drums were basically free and the bass held down the vamps. So I wrote all of these complicated vamps with overlaid melodies, and I expanded it to a double group with Jim Hobbs playing alto, Steve Norton playing baritone, Curt and Jerome on drums, and Nate McBride on electric bass. And did Racket Club.
I consider that the big loud electric guitar lineage is made up of the blues, it’s made up of vamps, and it’s made up of sound. So the next part destined to be called Mess Hall is still in the works and it’s the scariest part because I actually have to deal with the sound aspect, the Hendrix pyramid of sound, I have to deal with that part. So I’m working on that now. That’s Mess Hall. And that’s going to be keyboards, drums, electric guitar, and possibly some other tape loops…I’m working on that.
So that’s my big loud electric guitar trilogy. Playing big loud electric guitar can either be a rip-off of someone else who did it or you can be very methodical about it and really think it out like you were doing if you were playing alto saxophone. You don’t want to sound like Ornette, you don’t want to sound like Julius Hemphill, you don’t want to sound like Charlie Parker. You have to really apply yourself. It’s harder now to enter the arena as an original alto voice…
BC: Sure! All of that history behind you…
JM: Because you have all that material you have to understand and you have to filter through to your own expression, for a very compound experience to present that and a platform – a rhythm section or some kind of environment where you get to use the alto differently. Dealing with the electric guitar and the big loud electric guitar is also complicated because there’s such a huge glut of stuff that you have to sift through and it’s inherently limited. It’s limited by its very nature so you have to go to the limitations and turn it into something. So that’s what I’ve chosen to do. So far it’s the longest, sort of most secret part of what I do. I have a bunch of things like that. I have trio records, I have quartets, and I have solo music that I’ve worked on. And I have extended technique things that I’ve added on a whole bunch of my records. I have a series of parallel activities that I do, I just don’t announce them all.
BC: Right. There seemed to be at least two paths in your work, there was the “big loud electric” path and this path you’re working on with the new trio…
JM: Really it’s all just about playing the guitar. I kind of have a love/hate relationship with the guitar. I hate the damn thing because it’s so….sort of American old-class, it’s shiny, it has knobs on it, it’s like the pickup truck driven onto the polo field (laughing). The realm of jazz and free jazz has gotten to be so pretentious and so full of itself and so arty for the sake of itself, that if you show up with electric guitar and say “I can play this thing and I have fun really digging in”, they give you that like “Oh really? Is that right? Well isn’t that wonderful?”
JM: So part of me is just a totally rude, punk, I’ll-show-you-get-the-hell-out-of-my-way guy and the guitar fits me perfectly like that because it’s just inherently rude. It will never be classy. And the other part of me says, well then damnit, let’s train it and bring it up a couple of notches so that once we get rid of all those people who don’t want to hear it, we can play to the audience that does want to hear it and bring something out that maybe they’re not prepared for. And I think that’s exactly what Wes Montgomery did and Bern Nix and Blood Ulmer does and Jimmy Rainey did and all those guys…
You get this thing, it’s like a box of strings plugged into a radio and you’re supposed to make it sound like music. So in that sense it’s the ultimate New World instrument. And I love it for that. And I hate it for that.