A Fireside Chat With Joe Morris
“ I care about Jimmy Lyons and all these great alto players. I care about Ornette and I care about having a drummer that swings like crazy in a really modern sense. ”
To me, Joe Morris is about as good as it gets these days. Sure, I pine for the days of Trane and Ayler. But every now and then, I am pleased to be alive and well (relative) in 2003. Morris' discography is impressive, records with both Ken Vandermark and Vandermark's DKV Trio, Joe and Mat Maneri, William Parker, John Butcher, AALY Trio, Hamid Drake, Matt Shipp, Roy Campbell Jr., Raphe Malik (my fingers are starting to hurt). So when Morris announced he would be dusting off his record executive shoes and getting his label Riti back into nationwide circulation, I was on the bandwagon. From his home, Morris spoke about the label, its future, as well as his not so recent, but newsworthy, interest in the bass, as always, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's talk about Riti Records.
Joe Morris: I started it in 1983 and released five records on it until about 1992. I then realized that I had to start recording for other people, but all the time that I was, I had in my mind, first a five year plan that I would do that. I think it went about seven to ten years before I was really sort of in the position to do it. Not that there is a lot of money involved with it or anything, but just that I got emotionally ready to do it again. I have a different situation with it now, so it's a little bit for feasible. Also, I have a better rep. It is easier for me to sell records now. That is mainly the reason I did it.
FJ: Being an artist first and foremost, what is your process of choosing material to release?
JM: I've been following a deliberate path about what I wanted to play and why I wanted to play for twenty years or more now, starting with my first recording in '83. So I kind of did what I wanted to do all the time. I made maybe a couple of records that producers suggested with other people in sort of collective type situations that I probably wouldn't have done otherwise on my own, but those are things I wanted to do and I didn't ever really do what I didn't want to do.
But because of the changes in the business, in the scene, in the last couple of years, it was definitely becoming something where people were starting to tell me what they wanted me to door saying that we will do this as long as you do that, and this and that, and I am interested in that. I wanted to do what I am doing now. I wanted to do different things that maybe weren't commercial because things were being suggested that I was supposed to sell a certain number of records and I didn't come into this for that. I am an artist. I don't care about the business end of it that much. So it was just better to be independent, Fred.
FJ: When a producer or label guy tells you to sell 'X,' what is 'X?'
JM: It is hard to say. It depends on who you are and what you do. No one sells a lot of records in this thing. If you can sell two thousand records in the independent jazz thing, you are doing really good. Guys who are doing really good might sell that or three thousand records. It is just a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, little world. And when people start getting competitive over who is sells fifteen hundred records and who sells twenty five hundred records, it is silly. That is exactly what has been happening in the last few years.
So rather than being either led around by some record companyand I am not talking about any of the people who I have dealt withwho haven't done that, but trying to find somebody else and realizing that I would be led around or feeling guilty for not living up to somebody's expectations, I just rather avoid the whole thing if I could. The people I have dealt with in my recording history have been cool, but I have been very direct with all of them. I have managed to come out feeling pretty good about it all.
FJ: It means little, but I dig the packaging. Simplicity.
JM: Well, it is a combination of things. Obviously, when you are making jazz records or free jazz records or new jazz records, there is not a lot of money in it, so you don't want to spend a lot of money and if you can have a good looking and well manufactured CD without spending the usual amount of money, then you are going to keep your costs down and it is possible to keep the flow of records coming out. But also, we don't need anymore jewel boxes. I like the cardboard sleeves. I like the simplicity of it. They remind me of old records. They are certainly not as wasteful and I like that part. But is much cheaper to do it that way. My wife is a professional graphic designer and I take the pictures. We sort of come up with ideas for them and she does the Photoshop work on them. She is great, so it is all in the house. It is great. She has done almost all of my record covers since forever.
FJ: I like the rock photo on Age of Everything .
JM: That is actually a rock behind my house. That is actually on my property. Isn't that cool? It is called a geological abnormality or something. I forget, but no one can really figure out how that rock ended up there.
FJ: Age of Everything is a guitar trio session. The other two members in your band, Timo Shanko (bass) and Luther Gray (drums) are foreign to me (not that I know shit).
JM: There is another reason to make your own records because Timo Shanko is somebody I have known for a very long time, for about fifteen years. Luther is new to me, but Timo is a bassist in the Fully Celebrated Orchestra, which has consistently been one of my favorite groups of musicians. They are in Boston and they are led musically by Jim Hobbs, who is a tremendous alto player, who recorded with me on my record Racket Club , which is on About Time. These guys are phenomenal musicians. They are just unbelievable musicians. You go to, I think at this point, as amazing as they are, they are not trendy. They're not really interested in a lot of the things that have been going on, which to me, makes them more interesting because they are different. They're interested in Coltrane and Ornette and swinging and playing with a lot of energy and a lot of precision. They are really a different kind of group of musicians. So again, if I ask people to pony up to make a record with someone they have never heard of, it is harder to get the money. There is a bigger risk that people are going to lose money, so my attitude is to hell with it. I will just do it myself and I am so glad I did.
FJ: Eloping with the Sun (Riti) features Hamid Drake and William Parker.
JM: Yeah, I did a duo, Ken Vandermark hired me to play a duo in Chicago with Hamid a couple of years ago, about two and a half years ago. I have been playing banjo, ukulele for a long time and I'm really interested in African music and the name Riti Records, riti is a one string African fiddle. I spent years listening to field recordings of traditional West African string music. I am totally up, inside of that. I love that. I can talk to Hamid Drake about that and we know the names of people. He actually had tea once with Alhaji Bai Konte in a tent in the Sahara Desert. Alhaji Bai Konte is one of my all time heroes. He's one of the greatest kora players of the modern era.
In the duo, we played a little frame drum, ukulele duet and it worked. Then William Parker and I did a duo where he was playing zintir, which is a two string Moroccan bass lute. On the gig, we did about twenty five to thirty minutes of playing like that. About six months later, William came up to me in New York, and we were all playing on the same bill, and that the recording of that was really unusual and we should put it out. He gave it to me and I listened to it, but we didn't have enough to make a record. Hamid was coming to town and we put the microphones up and I recorded it at the AUM Fidelity headquarters and recorded a trio in an afternoon. It is the kind of thing that the three of us kind of just understand. I know those guys know about that music and we just do it. There is no discussion about what we are going to do. We just hit record and record a bunch of stuff. It is all centered about William's zintir. He is amazing. He is an non-traditional on that as he is on bass, but he ends up just furthering the whole reality of it because he is such a great musician.
FJ: A secondary vocabulary between the three of you.
JM: It definitely is, Fred. I think it might be equal to the primary vocabulary. One time I was sitting in a restaurant with Hamid in Chicago and we were talking about some of these things and a musician was sitting there, turned and said, 'What is that?' And Hamid said, 'That is what we try to get to every night when we play music.' I really think that that is what the three of us always try to do. It is maybe a little bit more obvious using this instrumentation, of the folk aspect of it. But it is funky too and it is intense and it is dense. And that is true of all of our playing. I think that sensibility totally governs everything that I ever do. I'm glad to be able to say that so people don't think I'm trying to be a classical musician. I like African music, jazz, and then folk music and pop music. That is totally where I come from on every level. It is easy to say that is true of those guys because they have proven that every time they pick up an instrument.
FJ: And the Whit Dickey record?
JM: First of all, Riti, right now is operating as a coop. Whit's record, he produced that and we're releasing it on Riti, which is distributed by AUM Fidelity. Thank, God. He has really helped us out a lot, Steven has. Whit and Rob and I have played together since 1992 when Rob made a recording that is on Riti called Universe. It is a really great recording, but it was basically Rob's group with his pieces. Since then, over the years, we have gotten together a few times. I've booked a few gigs. It was sort of like my group and then Rob's and Whit decided to do it and so he recorded us last year and this one is all free. It is very interesting. I get to sort of play the role of the bassist or the accompanist. We have done a lot of gigs. We played the Vision Festival last year. It is kind of a unique sort of thing. There is a history and common understanding of the things we do together. It is very different than the other record. There is a given understanding there.
FJ: Anything in the can for Riti?
JM: I'm not sure. There is a record with Dave Ballou and a cellist and me playing bass that should be coming out on Riti this year. I'm going to do another trio record. I have a bunch of things that I am looking into and trying to figure out what I am going to do. The good thing about this is I can respond very quickly. I could just say that I am going to do that and then do it. I can record things in my house. I have an engineer that I work with. They come out looking good. I send them to the plant. They are ready a month later and we send them to the distributor. It is pretty quick. I might be doing a solo electric record. I think I will try and do that this year and I have been playing bass with a lot of people. So there is a whole bunch of possibilities there that I haven't figured out yet.
FJ: Nuances between bass and guitar?
JM: They are totally different instruments. The advantage is they are both string instruments and they are both the top four strings and the low four strings are tuned the same way, so I know where I am note wise. But the functionality is totally different, although I guess I have played kind of bass parts on the guitar. I have always wanted to be a bassist. I write all my music off of what the bass does. All my understanding of music, jazz music, free jazz is focused on how the bass works. I could tell you as much about Fred Hopkins and Henry Grimes and Mingus as I can about Jimmy Rainey and Wes Montgomery.
I really love the bass. I think the music always changes when the bass playing changes. I am totally into playing bass right now. I have a nice old instrument and I play it all the time. I've got gigs and more recordings coming out. It is like I have reinvented myself. It is totally neat (laughing). I am a totally middle aged guy in my late forties and I am playing a new musical instrument like I just started. It is so exciting and I am getting pretty good too. I am happy with my playing. It has grown a lot. It is nice to see something change with practice and effort.
FJ: How's the touring work?
JM: I have been playing a lot between Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York in the last year. I have been teaching at the New England Conservatory and so that has helped things financially. I have had some good gigs playing the bass. I have been doing pretty well. I haven't really had much of a desire to hustle to go to Europe, so if I get invited, I go, but I have no desire to hustle. I have two kids and a young son and I've really been trying to do different music than what I think everyone expects or wants in Europe. It's gotten so strange to stand up there with two guys no one has ever heard of and basically swing at these rapid tempos and articulate these really quick, melodic things, I don't think it's trendy. I'm upset that it's not trendy, but I don't care either because so much of the scene seems to be about not playing or about some kind of conceptual scheme and I am just going to bide my time and wait.
I don't miss it. The hustle was something that I think was the way I evaluated my worth as a musician, and I am over that now. I don't really care about that anymore.
FJ: The bane of the hustle.
JM: Yeah, I have been working on it a long time and I am always the person who falls in the cracks. I'm a guitarist. That's strike one. I like jazz music. That's strike two. And I actually like to play things that swing and are melodic. That's strike three. If I was putting the guitar on the table and playing it with open tuning or I was playing a tape along with it or if I was doing something that was considered 'experimental,' whatever that means, I would probably do better. But I don't fit in in that world. I don't care about that kind of stuff. I care about Jimmy Lyons and all these great alto players. I care about Ornette and I care about having a drummer that swings like crazy in a really modern sense.
I am trying to push that to a new, meaningful place, which is what I have always tried to do. I don't really think the scene in Europe has ever been very supportive of that. In pockets it has. I can go to Portugal. It works there. I've done some nice gigs in France. I've done some nice gigs in Ireland. People like it in England. But overall, it hasn't ever been like I was the right kind of guy. Rather than feel bad about that, I just figured so I am not the right kind of guy. I will play here. I will play here and the audiences like it and I'm happy and I have a good life. If I am not on the road all the time playing to people that are indifferent in Europe, then I am lucky. I'm fortunate to not have to do that. I'm home. I get my son on the bus everyday to go to school. I sleep in my own bed every night.
FJ: Being mutual Ornette aficionados, I few to San Francisco to hear Ornette. It was only his second public appearance in years. He played for two hours, no breaks, no intermission, took a bow, an encore bow, and left.
JM: Yeah, that is great. The greatest thing about Ornette is you can listen to it and it doesn't need any explanation. You don't have to walk away going, 'Now, why am I supposed to like that?' (Laughing) And that is true of just about everybody that I like. I like stuff that is real direct. I am curious about everything. I'm open to just about anything that goes on. I keep returning to the place of playing, really playing and trying to get up some energy and articulate the finer points of that energy and be melodic within these really roaring grooves and playing with guys that are playing the hell out of their instruments. That is what I like. I like it to be spectacular. I've done some other things out of, I think I used to be more of a pluralist in a way. I sort of took the new jazz, new music kind of thing as a point of study. Now, I think that is sort of a bankrupt sensibility that has just gotten all involved with itself. I want to go out and hear somebody play something in an exciting way that I have never heard before.
When I hear Timo play every night, my jaw drops. He is an absolute phenomenon. He's phenomenal. He's sensational. When you hear him play, when you watch him play, you can't believe that somebody can do that on an instrument that huge and still, he is deep and melodic and rich and musical to the max. He plays melodies on the bass that I don't think I could ever play on the guitar. He is that spectacular and Luther is the same way. For a young guy, he's thirty years old, he has so much depth and so much swing and so much melody in his playing. He is such a great person to play with. He is just always there. I say, 'La.' He says, 'Di-Da.' It is like mind reading going on. I like that and it is free of the sort of conceptual baggage of an awful lot of stuff out there. I know that sounds really negative and I don't mean to discredit other people's work, but gee, we heard an awful lot of that for the last thirty years.
How about somebody picking up the alto and playing it in a way that is exciting that has never been done before? That's what I like. That's all I've ever wanted from this. I just want to play with a roaring band and have a really good time and have people sit there and go, 'Wow.' That is all I have ever wanted from this. I don't care about being a genius or having opinions. I just want to play the guitar with a really great rhythm section or play bass with a really good horn player and a good drummer at this point.
FJ: Sounds like you are at the mountaintop.
JM: Yeah, yeah, I have never felt better playing music. I've never had more fun. I've never played better. I'm really harsh on my playing as everybody else is, but what I do is very difficult, although it might not seem that way, and I feel really in control of all of that right now. Part of that is ridding myself of distractions of other people's aesthetics. I've been consistent in my aesthetic for all the years that I have been doing this and I've allowed a lot of other influences to come in and I have gathered that technique.
But ultimately, I am right where I have always wanted to be. I love the alto voice of the freest, most rhythmic music and I want to play that on the guitar. I want to support that on the guitar or on the bass. I've got that. My band is roaring. I trust all the people that I work with. The record company is doing well. My relationship with AUM Fidelity, which distributes the records is healthy and nice and very positive. So in this really weird time in the music, I feel fantastic. It is really great. I feel lucky, but I also feel like I had to make some tough decisions about whether to be a careerist or to enjoy playing and I decided I would enjoy playing and that has worked out for me.
Like I said, Fred, I don't take myself that seriously, and when the music takes itself that seriously, it gets old and it gets boring. I like this stuff because it is exciting. I still listen to records all the time. I put on Sonny Rollins records and Jimmy Lyons records and Henry Threadgill records. I listen to them all the time. I just want to get to where I can do something that is as good as all this stuff I like. So I am working on it.
FJ: Yet another reason to lament living in Southern California.
JM: Well, you have to come east sometime, Fred. This whole thing is such a tiny little world. There is a lot of smart people in it with a lot of big ideas, but it is just a tiny little world of aficionados. We just have to figure out how to all get together. Somebody has got to organize an actual festival in California that brings the people out, just like people have done in New York. Once a year, everybody gets out there and gets a gig so everybody on the West Coast can hear everybody. I try to tour out there, but there is just no money. I can fill the dates, but by the time I look at the whole thing, it is a week away from home without making any money. I would rather play down the street for my friends and come home. It just makes more sense. Eventually, it will happen because I don't plan on giving up at any point. I'm sticking with it.
Michael Wilderman/Jazz Visions