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.
Part 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.
I can say the structure of “Geomantic,” which kicks off Wildlife, has him starting out with a fast bass walk, a pulsing steady rhythm of eighth notes wandering up and down the fretboard. As the piece progresses, the freedom loosens up, and Morris is messing with slower but more complex figures — lots of double stops, lots of longer, tangly ideas.
As for non-bass moments, “Geomantic” ends with a stormy, power-punched drum solo from Luther Gray that gets augmented with full-force caterwauling from Cancura on sax. It’s like their trading fours, but without the fours, and with a menacing intensity that a traditional jazz group doesn’t reach.
“Thicket” puts the bass in a different kind of supporting role. While Cancura lays out a fast-paced melody mixing ritual and joy (I find myself thinking of Native American ceremonies), Morris is digging away at a fast pace in tiny steps: lots of repeated notes, lots of wandering a step or so away from the center but never much farther, for a busily static simmering. Morris also takes a couple of solos in this vein, intense interludes. It might be similar to what he sometimes does on guitar, come to think of it.
“Nettle” is where Morris gets a really adventurous solo, pizzicato with clacking sounds and a free-improv sound. It’s particularly interesting given that the track is otherwise the jazziest of the four on Wildlife, with a direct swing to Cancura’s sax lines. For what appears to be an improvised track (songs are credited to all three players), it’s got a very composed sound.
The composition “Beautiful Existence” is given a more quick-handed treatment than on Morris’ guitar album of the same name. Morris provides a chaotic, tumbing bassline alongside Cancura’s propulsive playing.
“Gazzelloni” is a more restrained romp, all three players starting out free, with Cancura pecking abstractly in front of Morris’ loping sounds. A Morris solo later in the track shows off the kind of fluidity you’d want in this setting, weighed nicely by the heft of the bass.
The bow — which played a big role when Morris played with Marshall Allan and Matthew Shipp at Yoshi’s recently — finally shows up on “Folk,” providing some crooning melody behind Cancura’s wispy flute. It’s as if Morris is playing the main part (even if it’s a riff-like rumble that doesn’t stray much), with Cancura adding texture. His solo takes a while to wander from the center but does so nicely before settling back into pedal tones, lending drama to the last part of the tune.
Jazz is a group effort, and improvised jazz doubly so. Morris seems to be exploring the bass’ supporting role (as on “Flip and Spike,” a conventional jazz stride, or “Rwanda,” a composition where Morris settles on a catchy riff) and its leading possibilities. You’d expect the same from anybody learning an instrument in this genre, I suppose. I don’t have the ear to discern how good he’s gotten at it, or what kind of direction he’s taking that would make the bass a JOE MORRIS instrument.
Told you I didn’t have any conclusions. But I do feel like I’ve learned a little more about the bass, and about Joe Morris’ playing.
There’s plenty more Morris on bass out there, of course. He shows up on Matthew Shipp’s Harmonic Disorder (Thirsty Ear, 2009) and leads his own Bass Quartet on High Definition (Hatology, 2008). And I haven’t even touched his banjo discs, Eloping with the Sun (Riti, 2003) and Atmosphere (KMB Jazz, 2008).