Joe Morris Bass Quartet: High Definition (2008)
One of today's most iconoclastic jazz guitarists, Joe Morris is a staunch tonal purist whose crisp, spidery cadences and blistering angular runs are legendary in the jazz underground. Seeking new avenues for expression, Morris added upright bass to his instrumental arsenal in 2000. Since then, he has split his time between leading his own ensembles as a guitarist and playing bass as a sideman with fellow artists Rob Brown, Whit Dickey, Steve Lantner, Daniel Levin, and Matthew Shipp.
High Definition is a paradigm shift for Morris; this is his first session leading an ensemble as a bassist. Joined by longstanding drummer Luther Gray, Morris enjoys the steadfast support of a like-minded veteran. With the animated front-line of cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and saxophonist Allan Chase, they offer a varied program of piano-less quartet traditions; vibrant West Coast styled arrangements and folksy Ornette-ish lyricism alternate with probing, experimental detours that border on Ayler-esque cacophony.
Morris' expansive writing straddles the tenuous line between inside and outside aesthetics with graceful fluidity, allowing ample solo space for each member of the quartet. With their infectiously knotty themes, harmonic sophistication, and lilting syncopation, "Skeleton," "Land Mass," and "All-In-One" feature ebullient melodies, rich chord changes, and spry rhythmic patterns. Tunes like "Morning Group," "Topics," and "Super Spot" head further out, embracing fluctuating tempos and unfettered polyphony.
An invigorating front-line voice, Bynum's blustery excursions evoke every aspect of the jazz tradition, from crisp hard-bop precision to elliptical cadences that bristle with pungent slurs, whinnies, and growls. An incisive conceptualist, his coruscating smears on "Land Mass" and "The Air Has Color" are both caustic and strangely tuneful. His rousing thematic variations on "Topics" reveal masterful technical virtuosity while his muted musings on the dulcet tone poem "Bearing" reflect a composer's sense of restraint.
A deft and under-sung multi-instrumentalist, Chase's kaleidoscopic contributions make him a perfect foil for Bynum's earthy elicitations. His baritone resounds with pneumatic muscularity on "Skeleton" and "All-In-One," while his alto veers from circuitous fervor on "Topics" to acerbic volatility on "Morning Group." He demonstrates a lyrical streak on "Bearing" and "The Air Has Color," unfurling sinuous soprano fragments.
Morris' elastic melodic contours and Gray's impeccable timing weave a mosaic of effervescent momentum as their finely honed conversational interplay provides direction to even the most nebulous passages. Sounding confident and inspired, Morris solos on almost every tune, unveiling a robust tone and supple phrasing. Gray demonstrates a wide dynamic range, veering from the roiling assault of "Super Spot" to lithe percussive shading on "Bearing."
High Definition opens a promising new chapter for Morris as a bandleader. No longer limited in his choice of instrumentation as an ensemble leader, this radiant session reveals new vistas for exploration from one of the most creative minds of his generation.
Track Listing: Skeleton; Morning Group; Land Mass; Topics; Bearing; All-In-One; Super Spot; The Air Has Color.
Personnel: Joe Morris: double bass; Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, trumpet, flugelhorn; Allan Chase: alto, baritone, and soprano saxophones; Luther Gray: drums.