Joe Morris holds a unique position in creative music, meriting the top drawer on both guitar and bass, wielding the former in David S. Ware's resurgent company on Shakti (AUM Fidelity, 2009), and the latter on Wildlife (AUM Fidelity, 2009). For his third outing on the same imprint in 2009 Morris returns to guitar for what might just be his best showing yet, in a move which represents sustained artistic return on the label's investment.
Completing the quartet, on what is their sophomore release, are long-time associates Jim Hobbs on alto saxophone, best known for helming the Fully Celebrated Orchestra (who made their own AUM Fidelity debut with Drunk on the Blood of the Holy Ones earlier in the year), together with the Celebrated's bassist Timo Shanko and Luther Gray behind the traps. Though Morris calls what he plays Free Music, alluding to the freedom he desires to express his feelings and ideas, his concise compositions are the guiding force in this 67-minute set, allowing ample room for individual expression within relatively straight ahead confines.
Morris' ringing single note lines evoke join the dot drawings, where each bright sonic point is linked inextricably to the next until they reveal unsuspected but coherent wholes. On alto, Hobbs demonstrates his astounding timbral control with vocalized, wavering cries and smears, which in their skilful nuance suggest an extreme version of the Ornette Coleman of the early Atlantic sides. Indeed, on the oriental-tinged "Observer," Shanko's flamenco-informed strums and throbbing bent notes evoke Coleman's face of the bass, Charlie Haden, to reinforce the similarities. Shanko and Gray make for a tight pairing, unobtrusively buoying up the front line while making the most of what space comes their way.
Though each of the seven pieces starts with a guitar and alto unison head, Morris' simple cellular motifs act as fertile jumping off points and building blocks for individual expression, ultimately giving each cut a satisfyingly distinct flavor. From the lively free-bop of the opening "Backbone," via the staccato pointillism of "Embarrassment of Riches," through to the flag-waving "Imaginary Solutions," the group thoroughly and inventively inhabit these compositions. On "Ashes," Shanko's arco atmospherics, limned by telling percussion, summon spacey horn and guitar solos with slow burning intensity. But it is "Animal," with its cantering bittersweet melody and insistent hook, which draws the strongest statements from both Morris and Hobbs, and stands as the highest summit among a range of peaks.
Personnel: Joe Morris: guitar; Jim Hobbs: alto saxophone; Timo Shanko: bass; Luther Gray: drums.