Although guitarist Joe Morris has proven himself to be an accomplished upright bassist since adding the instrument to his arsenal in 2001, it is on the guitar that he truly shines, and nowhere more so than on Beautiful Existence.
Temporarily setting aside his recently adopted instrument for his first axe, Morris leads his quartet on an adventurous and varied set. With hauntingly atmospheric modal grooves, tender, reflective ballads and invigorating, angular free bop, Morris's singular talents as a guitarist have never been more evident.
Alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs joins fellow Fully Celebrated Orchestra member, bassist Timo Shanko and drummer Luther Gray, Morris' regular rhythm section, to create a sympathetic group of fellow improvisers. Operating conceptually outside of current trends, the quartet eschews electronics, sampling and postmodern structures, opting instead for a stripped-down, classic but free-leaning post bop sound.
Opening with a flurry of activity on the Ornette Coleman-ish "Smear Spring," Morris unleashes a barrage of notes that literally numb the senses. A tonal traditionalist, Morris abstains from electronic effects, playing dry and clean, he demonstrates clarity in his melodic conception that is staggering in its complexity. This is obvious on the circuitous path he navigates through his opening solo on the title track. With its jaunty melody and angular abstraction, the devilish maze is of his own devising. Showing restraint, he reveals a mellifluous sense of delicacy on "Some Good." Reminiscent of an adventurous late-1960s Blue Note session riding a relaxed modal bass ostinato, Morris delivers his most lyrical playing of the album.
Alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs locks in with Morris with convincing commitment. His funky backyard chicken-scratch multiphonic solo on the African-inspired polyrhythmic vamp of "Knew Something" builds a conceptual bridge between the sonic abstraction of Roscoe Mitchell and the rhythmic frenzy of Afro-Beat. This interest in expressive vocalized effects manifests itself on the title track as well, to exhilarating effect, all bleats, smears and whinnies.
The rhythm section of Shanko and Gray alternately complements and contrasts with Morris and Hobbs. Occasionally vamping over mid-tempo grooves, their contributions may not be as immediately noticeable as the work on the front line. While navigating Morris' tricky modulating meters, however, their creative interaction and highly developed call and response interplay establish them as essential collaborators, not merely timekeepers. There are a few moments where the pair takes the stage, though: Luther Gray gets a chance to throttle his drum kit at the close of "Smear Spring" and Shanko contributes a lyrically assured solo on "King Cobra." Everyone gets a solo feature on the closing title track, the record's conceptual highpoint.
Jazz guitar fans can rejoice in the knowledge that Morris has decided not to abandon his first love. A stunning album and a welcome return to form, Beautiful Existence is one of the year's finest jazz guitar records, if not one of the finest period.
Personnel: Joe Morris: guitar; Jim Hobbs: alto saxophone; Timo Shanko: bass; Luther Gray: drums.