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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.
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).]
AAJ: I was comparing your music to what Derek Bailey does, and there's just something so much more tonal about it.
JM: Well, Derek would never think of himself being connected to jazz. I had a long talk with him once. And although he knows a lot about jazz, and he likes it a lot, and he can play it (Henry Kaiser tells me that Derek can do a great Jim Hall imitation). I played with him once, and it was swinging like mad in its way. Man, that guy has energy and motion in his playing, when you look for it.
That guy is also a complete iconoclast. He's amazing. My thing is to put that rhythm in there. Just intentionally have that rhythm there. I had dinner with Derek and Karen, his partner, and we had a conversation about that. She said, "Why do you do that stuff?" I said, "Derek is Derek. If I want to be like Derek, I'll have to get in a long line of people trying to be like Derek." There's a lot of people trying to be like other people. My take has always been to try and be like me, and suffer the consequences, and reap the rewards, if there are any. I think that's why I even got to talk to somebody like Derek Bailey, because I think he knows that. He knows that I have my own voice.
I also am constantly listening to Thelonious Monk. That guy is the highest priest of deep knowledge in music. Two or three notes out of that guy just blow my mind. I can't believe how he figured out how to place them that way. I mean, I think about things like that all the time, like how is he placing that note against the beat. How do you do that? Where is your inspiration coming from that you can figure out something that beautiful? You know? That's the thing that racks my brain constantly.
Some of it is with drums and bass, and the placement, and thinking about tune and flow, and other things are more about interaction, and a little bit more mysterious, but it's all about how you put things in the right place at the right time, and make it fresh. There are so many different layers to consider there; there's so many different ways to go. Monk's just one of the people who expresses in one note every musical possibility.
AAJ: The compositions are very recyclable, too.
JM: Yeah, they're perfect. Every single one of them. It's mind-boggling.
AAJ: Have you ever thought about doing an album of standards?
JM: Yeah, I thought about it when I thought it would help me get over, but since then I actually got offered to do one of somebody else's music. I think if I did one at this point, I might do a record of John Lennon's tunes or something. I don't know. It's been on my mind the last couple of months. I was thinking of doing a record of Cecil's early compositions, like in his early band, and I got offered the opportunity to do it, and when it was right in front of me, I didn't really want to do it. Well, so, I wasn't going to be able to pick the band, and all that. I wanted to do it 3 or 4 years ago, and then I decided I didn't want to do it. Hopefully I'll be around long enough that I can do a lot of those different things.
But I've been getting more into doing things that are totally free, in a way. I'm writing, and I have bands that are doing that, but one of my biggest things is just getting into setting up groups that cross the border between jazz and improvised music. I'm kind of into that these days too. Writing is always a tricky thing. You write, and you work the music out, you rehearse it, then you record it, and hopefully you get to perform it. Improvising, you go and do it. Then on to the next project. You can move very quickly when you're improvising. Writing is slower. I want to have a body of work, of compositions with different groups playing them, like Monk.