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Joe Morris first started playing the guitar in 1969, at the age of 14. He immediately took to the instrument and started a long process of self-instruction. During his high school years, he spent time playing with other students and listening to a wide variety of recorded and live music. Morris's major influences during this period included seminal free jazz revolutionaries like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphyas well as West African string music and 20th century classical composers. By the mid-'70s he had established himself as an improviser in Boston, organizing various groups to help realize his musical vision.
His recording career started in 1981 with the self-released LP Wraparound. After a two-year stint in New York in the late '80s, he returned to Boston to record his second Riti record, Sweatshop, a brilliant, steamy free funk trio outing. His Riti Records label released a handful of discs before 1991. Subsequently Morris's recorded output has gone through the roof, with recordings in a variety of configurations for Soul Note, ECM, Hat Hut, Leo, No More, and AUM Fidelity, among others. He has collaborated extensively with improvisers from Boston, New York (especially), Chicago, England, and elsewhere.
High points from his discography (in addition to the thoroughly recommended Sweatshop) include Thesis, an understated duo with Matthew Shipp; Three Men Walking, with fellow Bostonians Joe and Mat Maneri; A Cloud of Black Birds, a quartet disc with Mat Maneri; and the brand new solo acoustic record [as of 2001] Singularity.
Morris's abstract, idiosyncratic guitar style has been quite consistent on record and in performance. He has mostly stuck to the electric guitar, using a clean tone free of distortion or effects. His playing tends to be remarkably dense and organized, relying upon small intervals and angular, clustery runs to achieve momentum. Joe Morris's music demands and rewards attention from the listener. It's sufficiently open-ended that the listener often has to fill in gaps and use imagination to extrapolate his fragmentary themes. Morris has reinvented guitar improvisation with a visionary approach that places him far ahead of his peers on the instrument.
I spoke with Morris one night in March, 1998 in Boston. Our conversation revealed the amazing depth of thought and experience that has characterized Morris's work.
[Note: this interview was performed in 1998 but originally published in 2001. This 2005 update includes all of the original text, plus an updated discography. Readers may be curious to know that Joe Morris, currently a resident of New Haven, Connecticut, now plays the bass (see selected discography entries from 2002 onward in Part Two of the interview).]
AAJ: Tell me what kind of music you listen to these days.
Joe Morris: I don't listen to that much music, really. Quite honestly, I don't listen to music to be inspired to play music. I listen to the music that I do a lot. Then again, I listen to everything... I listen to every kind of music on the radio. I went through a period a few years ago where I listened to everything all the time for 10 or 15 years. Then I just got to the point where I really wanted to listen to my own music and the music that my friends made.
So today I heard an interesting piece on the radio... in my car I listen to everything from baroque music to everything else. I'm not that into much. I usually have some ideas that I think would be interesting to hear in music, but I don't usually hear it. And then sometimes I hear something that reminds me that I should open up my brain and not be so critical of everything. It's a funny thing... and it could be some folk singer, or anything, really.
AAJ: Can you go back for me? What was important to you when you used to listen to music a lot?
JM: When I first got into music, the first music I ever listened to was Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass. And I played the trumpet for a while. Then I got into the Beatles and I played the guitar. I was really into the Beatles. I'm still into the Beatles. Actually, I've been thinking a lot about John Lennon lately because I've been hearing some of the stuff he did after the Beatles, which is awesome. Totally amazing.
Then I was really into blues, Chicago blues and Delta blues. This was back in like 1970, when I was 15, you know. I was really practicing to play that way, and I got to be a pretty good blues guitarist, and then I got into Hendrix. I got into blues to understand Hendrix more. I got into Hendrix, but not to the point where I was copying Hendrix. I could play that stuff, but really, I was kind of quickly inspired by that stuff to try to do my own thing.
I was a really ridiculous truant in grammar school, so I really never went to high school. I went to alternative high school, which was sort of like hanging out with my friends. It was a student-run high school. You could do whatever you wanted as long as you did something (that was legal).
So I used to go to the New Haven library. (I grew up in New Haven, CT.) Yale is there, you know. I used to go to recitals at Yale, and hear everything from Rashied Ali, Leo Smith, Anthony Davis, to Stockhausen and the symphony every Friday night, and classical guitar recitals. I knew Michael Bolton, you know. His name was Michael Boloten then, and he was a good friend of my sister's, so I'd go hear him.