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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Yoshi’s Goes Out

I managed to get to the Go Left Fest at Yoshi’s San Francisco last night, and it was awesome. Six acts, headlined by Matthew Shipp (piano) / Marshall Allen (sax, EVI thingie) / Joe Morris (bass). Not a sellout crowd, sadly, but a warmly receptive one, folks who very much came to hear this kind of music.

Six acts in all, spanning four hours, including intermissions of varying length between acts. I’ve only got time to skim through the specifics.

The important thing is: They’re doing it again tonight (Tuesday June 23) and probably wouldn’t mind your support … It’s very hard for folks like these to tour the west coast, so it would be great to encourage Yoshi’s to continue sprinkling some outside acts into its schedule…

Anyway, the acts:

1. Beth Custer trio/quartet: A couple of pieces from her current Buckminster Fuller project, a couple of jazzy songs, and a catchy old-school jazz stomp called “Wag the Puppy,” written by guitarist David James.

2. Positive Knowledge: Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas (reeds, poetry) plus drummer Sunny Murray in the chair Spirit normally occupies. One long piece with lots of phases; generous applause for some of Oluyemi’s more breathtaking, overblowing solos on bass clarinet and soprano sax. Positive Knowledge weaves a spell of joyous improvised jazz, not only in Oluyemi’s playing but in Ijeoma’s recital, which often dips into abstract vocal sounds before returning to grounded, pre-written material. Sunny Murray was in a great mood, joking around with the audience while the band set up.

3. Myra Melford/Mark Dresser: Piano and bass, doing chamber-like compositions with a jazz jump to them (Melford’s specialty) and of course lots of improvising in the middle. Great rapport. My angle, behind the piano, was perfect for this set — I could see Melford’s light touch on the keys (even when she was splashing big chords with palms and wrists) and Dresser’s face and the top of the bass’ fingerboard. They finished with a really fun, small piece that gave Dresser a chance to goof around.

4. Ismael Reed: An author and poet, Reed performed with a band of sax (or clarinet or flute), piano, guitar, and drums. (Sunny Murray again, IIRC.) He started heavy, with pieces about the nonsensical waste of war and the unfair villification of “welfare queens.” Most of the remaining pieces dealt with jazz and jazz icons. Straight-up jazz backing throughout. Reed ended with the band playing “That’s What Friends Are For” — a bit cheesy, but his text was a thank-you note to various organs (heart, liver, and brain, mainly) for getting him this far.

5. Roswell Rudd: With Lafayette Harris on piano, who didn’t get enough credit from the crowd for his mix of standards-jazz styles, avant-garde dissonances, and rhythm-opening spacing. The set, sometimes augmented by trumpeter Earl Davis, was a mix of inside-out pieces (fairly straight stuff with free-ranging soloing) and some out-there screechiness. Fun, but Rudd lost track of the time; he announced a waltz piece written for his wife’s recent birthday but didn’t have time to play it. “You’ll hear that one tomorrow!” he said.

6. Marshall Allen, Matthew Shipp, Joe Morris: Playing together for the first time, and you always wonder if “first time” is going to be a letdown. It wasn’t. Shipp was stormy on piano throughout — in fact, I don’t think he ever stopped playing during any of the three or four long improvisations they did, aside from a Morris bass solo early on.

Allen was in prime form, wearing an Arkestra outfit and playing what I think was the “EVI,” an electronics gizmo controlled by a combination of breath, buttons, and dials. Lots of futuristic weirdness to be had there. The EVI produced the same kinds of sounds you’d get from laptop electronics, but with a more direct sense of control. It fit well but was turned up a bit too loud; Shipp’s playing is so tumultuous, it ought to eclipse the sax/reeds voice in spots, I think.

Again, I was behind the piano, so I got to watch the Matthew Shipp fireworks show. Man, he’s terrific. His hands seem to be flying everywhere in random stabs, but the chords that come out make so much sense. (Caveat: I suspect any pianist playing free jazz is like that.) He’s got a couple of trademark moves that were interesting to see in person — like one where he pokes a chord stacatto and (I think) hits the sustain pedal an instant too “late,” for a distant kind of echo/reverb. I’d never seen Shipp play before, so this was a particular treat. I’m going to go put his Symbol Systems solo CD on now.

Joe Morris gets a raw deal here — not only is the bassist often the hardest element of a combo to describe, but I couldn’t get a clear view of him with the piano blocking the way. His mercury-fluid guitar style does seem agreeable to the fast, wide-ranging wanderings of free-jazz bass, and that theory proved out well in this set.

Shipp +2, Braxton +1

Matthew Shipp Trio — Harmonic Disorder (Thirsty Ear, 2009)

shippYou can almost forgive someone for mistaking this for “cool traditional jazz.” Shipp’s piano trio frequently slips into some standard-sounding club-jazz soloing, with brisk, bright keys and deliciously wooden thickness to Joe Morris’ bass plucking. Whit Dickey on drums adds a chattery jazz feel and some nice cymbals rhythms.

But this is still Matthew Shipp, even minus the electronica dabblings he’s worked on in the last decade. On “Quantum Waves,” he sledgehammers the low notes, while the standards, “There Will Never Be Another You” and “Someday My Prince Will Come,” get the flying-off-the-road free-jazz treatment. “Roe” is catchy, but its sinister low-register melody is less cocktail hour and more SxSW; same with the creeping rainy-day comfort of “Mel Chi 2.” And then you’ve got the band just spouting large on “Zo Number 2.”

Anthony Braxton and Kyle Brenders — Toronto (Duets) 2007 (Barnyard, 2008 )

BarnyardBraxton’s Ghost Trance Music is like a brick wall, and to some listeners probably just as opaque. Seemingly endless matrices of nonrepeating pokes and stabs, one clearly discrete note after another, makes for an abstract kind of march that really stands out when, say, played during a radio show. Everything slams to a halt while the beat pulses on.

There’s a lot going on under the surface, though, and a listen to the full 30- or even 90-minute pieces on Rastascan‘s Six Compositions (GTM) 2001 reveals passages of passionate, jazzy soloing and playful individual improv. You can lose yourself wandering the magnetic fields of the pulse.

But that’s with 10 players; how does GTM translate to just two? It turns out, those freer moments stand out even more, as Braxton and Brenders work through lots of mood changes. They’ll play in composed unison for a minute or two — rigid, then free, then fast, then a slow break then fast again … and then shift into “soloing,” or at least a looser, improv-spiced passage. Moods and speeds can change every couple of minutes. It’s like a series of tricks joined together with brief improv periods, and it can be engrossing.

Toronto (Duets) is a 2-CD set, one composition per CD. Disk 1 is noticeably faster and perkier overall, but Disk 2 is equally rewarding, with some nice gentle improvising in the quieter spaces.

David S. Ware: New Energy

Shakti
Source: AUM Fidelity

I’m listening to Shakti, the much-lauded David S. Ware CD that officially got released this week, and I’m struck by the change in his style over the years. Shakti‘s quartet playing is still edgy but has such a warm, cushiony feel.

But wait — is this just me? I mean, I’ve recently sampled Dao and Cryptology, CDs from about 15 years ago: aggressive playing with pointy corners. Shakti is certainly different from that. But is it all that different from Ware’s work of five or even 10 years ago, when he got that brief contract with Columbia? Am I just being fooled because Matthew Shipp‘s marble-hall piano chords are replaced by Joe Morris‘ jazz guitar?

Time for a taste test. I go to Ware’s Live in the World and drop a 2003 disc into the CD player. I hit shuffle.

(OK, shuffle is bad: It picks “Lexicon,” three minutes of scorched-earth blasting. That’s the encore track, so it doesn’t count. Next.)

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