Sometimes an artist comes along that, while making obviously forward-thinking and unique music, nevertheless remains apart from one's expectations that at first it seems unapproachable. Yet revisiting this same artist a few years later, with more listening under one's belt, the value of the work becomes more readily apparent. With this in mind, Joe Morris, before seemingly a 'stylist', is now certifiably an important figure in creative guitar music.
With Age of Everything, Joe Morris has cemented his status as one of the preeminent improvising guitarists of the post-Derek Bailey age. Born in 1955, he came up among the New Haven and Boston scenes in the '70s and early '80s, and honed his skills working in rock bands and free music outfits, including a crucial period of study with the late pianist/drummer/composer Lowell Davidson. A fellow Bostonian, Davidson is not as well known as he should be'a pianist of extraordinary virtuosity, his compositions held loose, minimalist frameworks which gave way to solos of extraordinary harmonic complexity and were hallmarked by oddly dissociative serial runs.
After hearing Davidson's music, Morris' guitar technique makes far more sense; built on sketchy originating phrases, they gradually increase in density and complexity, make heavy use of repetition, and have a similar cool, detached texture. Unlike Bailey or Ray Russell, Morris rarely uses distortion (the closest he comes on this recording is a bit of muting) and, much like a pianist, he employs long single-note runs in his solos. My initial exposure to Morris (through his 1998 AUM Fidelity recording A Cloud of Black Birds ) was lukewarm, for the music was simultaneously interesting yet impenetrable, its vocabulary so unlike anything I''d ever heard in free music. Yet through the Davidson lens, a train of influence can be readily discerned.
Morris is heard best without another countering front-line instrument; in the former recording, Mat Maneri's flashier electric violin took attention away from Morris' subtle playing, disallowing one from hearing how engaging his phrasing really is. On this trio recording, joined by the sympathetic propulsion of bassist Timo Shanko and drummer Luther Gray, Morris can finally be heard out in the open. As is to be expected, Shanko and Gray get shorter solo space, but Gray in particular makes great use of what space he has, for his solos are varied and inventive.
Morris is no slouch as a composer, either; for example, 'Tree Branch' carries a playfully quirky stop-start head reminiscent, especially in this context, of Attila Zoller. 'Way In' is a vamp-based tango, and is probably the most conventional of anything in the set, but it gives an insistent anchor to a warmly building Morris exploration.
With Age of Everything, Joe Morris' work is now as innovator rather than stylist. In the context of two highly adept sparring partners and a varied program of original compositions, it is safe to say that the Black Birds are certifiably in flight.
This review originally appeared in AllAboutJazz-New York.
Personnel: Joe Morris: guitar; Timo Shanko: bass; Luther Gray: drums.