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Joe Morris: Singularity, Part 1-2

By Published: August 25, 2005

AAJ: You should do an album with him. That would be great.

JM: I don't think so. And then I used to go hear Eddie Buster, in an organ trio at the Top of the Town Cafe, when I was 16. It was in the ghetto, so I could go there and drink a tall Miller and sit there and just listen to the music. It was really cool—I used to do that all the time. I did that once a week for a couple years, by myself, you know. I was really into Ives, Ellington, Hendrix and Johnny Winter and the Allman Brothers. And then I got into Miles Davis and Coltrane.

My sister lived in Berkeley and hung around with some musicians there, including Ron Burton, who's a great pianist. She brought home Om, by John Coltrane. That was the first Coltrane I ever heard. And a couple of other things, and that was what I wanted to do. I have been really working the last couple of years to identify points when I got really inspired to be a creative musician. I think it happened when I was 14, for being a truant I got sent away to a state school. And I had an epiphany there. I'm actually working on a set of pieces about that period because it was really interesting. I have them all written. [For A Cloud of Black Birds (AUM Fidelity, 1998).]

And from that, rather than being interested in a particular kind of music, I was always trying to find things that kept me interested and reminded me of that feeling of inspiration... to be surprised. I found that mainly in jazz and then in African folk music. Really, more than anything in my life, traditional West African string music. That brings everything together. It brought all of the most radical classical music I could hear, all of the jazz, all of the blues, down to where it was supposed to be from, and it always seemed more sophisticated than everything.

So a lot of what I do is to try to get that kind of imagery, and that kind of texture in my music, without trying to lift it, and without trying to pretend that I'm an African. I take that stuff really seriously, and extend that aesthetic in my version. So that involves a lot of things, because the functional use of that music is so enormous, it's so broad. That's music for funerals, it's music for dancing, for every kind of human ritual that people have. Getting married, telling stories, storing history.

Everything that Black music in America is about is there, but without any of the racism. The struggle is different—it's more permanent. It's more about the land, about people actively involved in their lives without having to prove anything. It's fully realized. That's the thing that inspires me the most.

AAJ: How about African rhythm?

JM: It's tough for me, being a guitarist.

I always try to find things that have that element of mystery and surprise and don't get pedantic. I don't want anyone telling me how smart they are. I have equal respect for Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charles Ives, Olivier Messiaen and Anthony Braxton, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix. I'm not that unusual. There are a lot of people who feel that way. I don't draw any distinction.

AAJ: There's no class structure in the music.

JM: No, none whatsoever. There's good music and then there's not-as-good music.

The Ellington aesthetic: that's really the only way to do it. But with that in mind, I had things happen where I really saw things cross over. Like at a point when I was really interested in West African fiddle and lute music: really simple rhythms, unbelievable stuff... something done on two or three strings, but completely elevated music.

At the same time I was really into Messiaen, some of his percussion pieces and the smaller chamber pieces with percussion and brass. I saw this real connection—both those things can be religious and definitely be about nature (you know, Messiaen was all about nature). So I had some things happen in my music that connected through those things. I found what I was looking for in opposite sides of the world.

AAJ: I like the way you gesticulate with your guitar hand. That's very good. You're actually playing notes there.

JM: I never noticed that. I might have just started that tonight...

It's always work, you know.

It's not easy to be good at anything, that's for sure.

Also, if you're going to be any good at it, you can't put it in cement. It's gotta be, "I got a lot of work to do, this week, myself." It's always an ongoing process. I don't think of myself as a guitar player, like I'll get called for gigs and do whatever people want me to do, unless it's a creative project that's a challenge. But I'm not that interested in playing somebody else's music.

AAJ: Does anybody offer things like that?

JM: They used to, but I turned them down. I always liked playing funk, so I would do funk, because funk is hard. But I never was interested in having 40 different guitar sounds to fit different gigs. There's a certain art to doing that, but I could never do it. I like that, though, I admire people that can do that. It's a different kind of playing, a different use of music. But my thing has always been just to try to figure out another way to use a thing. It's raw material that I have to try to shape into something.

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