Joe Morris and the Bass

Joe Morris — Wildlife (AUM Fidelity, 2009)
Petr Cancura, Joe Morris, Jason Nazary — Fine Objects (Not Two, 2008)

So, what does it mean for Joe Morris to become a bass player?

He’s been a guitar player for longer, of course, and his A Cloud of Black Birds (AUM Fidelity, 1998) was one of my earliest experiences with free-jazz guitar, and a baffling one. I liked what I heard, but I had trouble processing it.

source: aum fidelity.comPart of the problem is that I’m more aware of the fluidity of notes on a guitar as opposed to saxophone. Maybe it’s because I can play a little guitar. A sheets-of-sound cascade on sax sounds impressive, but a similar run on guitar has the added spike of, “I know where all the notes are, and I still don’t understand what he just did.”

There’s also the matter of chords and harmonies, which spring from a dizzying encyclopedia of possibilities. Ben Monder‘s CD, Flux (Songlines, 1995), astounded me on that front; it was like falling into an alternate dimension of harmony. There’s a touch of naivete in my response, though; listening to a straight-jazz guitar master like John Pizzarelli is enough to show you how deep a guitarist can dig even in the confines of a standard.

Bottom line, I like Joe Morris’ electric guitar work. It’s like hearing a whole new language.

But what about bass? There’s nothing new about a gifted artist playing more than one instrument, but something about Morris’ shift to bass seemed so committed, so consuming. It opened up some tantalizing questions: What’s his style there, and how does it relate to his guitar work?

I didn’t think I’d have the ear to come up with good answers, but I gave it a shot anyway, with two recent releases, Wildlife and Fine Objects. Both are trio discs with Petr Cancura on sax, and both are in a usual jazz trio mode — that is, the sax tends to sound like the lead voice even on fully collaborative tracks where every band member is “soloing” at once. I figured Cancura would cancel himself out, letting me focus more on the bass.

Let me warn you now: I’ve got no deep conclusions here. In fact, I worry that I might glorify Morris for things that other bassists have been easily outdoing, right under my ears. But here goes.

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