Though there is nothing particularly spectacular about Byron Morris the saxophonist, the energy and joy that he brings to his group Unity, is truly a unifying force. His willingness to engage the audience in the music as it is happening is quite refreshing in a music often dominated by lofty-headed "artistes" who feel they are above explanations and conversation with the audience.
The saxophone and flutist came up in Roanoke, VA, where he played with pianist Don Pullen in a band called the Junior Aristocrats (named after his father’s swing band, the Aristocrats). Morris attended Tuskegee University and graduated in 1964 with a degree in engineering. Since the mid-1960s, Morris has worked as an engineer, devoting his free time to his first love – music. In 1972 he co-founded Unity with trumpeter Vincent McEwan and composer Gerald Wise. Unity often featured the expressive female vocalist Jay Clayton. Though Morris is the group’s only stalwart, the soul-jazz tradition remains.
As is customary for Morris’ shows, friends in the audience came from as far as Tuskegee, Norfolk, and the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Celebrating the release of Unity’s most recent CD, Y2K on Morris’ By-Mor label, the group was comprised of trumpeter Eddie “E.J.” Allen, vocalist Imani, pianist Hilton Ruiz, bassist Pepe Gonzalez, drummer Harrold Summey, Jr., and guest trombonist Wycliffe Gordon (formerly of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra).
It seems wherever Gordon goes, he steals the show with his Lawrence Brown-ish old school straight-ahead approach, but he had some tough competition on this gig. Playing next to veteran trumpeter Eddie Allen (an ace sideman with Steve Turre’s Sanctified Shells, Billy Harper, Muhal Richard Abrams and Mongo Santamaria), and Hilton Ruiz on piano (who has played extensively with the late Tito Puente, Paquito D’Rivera, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and hard-bopper George Coleman), Gordon had his work cut out for him. Allen’s huge sound, evidently inspired by Clifford Brown, with chops aplenty a la Lee Morgan, was a fine complement to Gordon’s brash slides and growls. And though Ruiz appears to be a regular guy, his virtuosic piano skills easily amaze any listener, from his two octave unison piano runs at break-neck speeds to his triplet subdivision creating complex polyrhythmic figures against the drums and bass. Not only were Ruiz’ skills evident on tunes with a Latin tinge, but also especially tasteful on the blues and other straight-ahead material.
Gonzalez and Imani (who happen to be husband and wife), both maintained excellent feel and knowledge of the jazz idiom. It’s unfortunate that so few people know Gonzalez’ playing outside the D.C. metro area, as he is truly a star. Imani has a mysterious approach to singing, from a belting mezzo soprano to her trademark scat singing using her tongue and upper palate to produce unconventional sounds. At times it seemed as though she were beat-backing a hip-hop artist.
The group opened the second set with Joe Henderson’s classic “Mamacita”. Gonzalez’ bass set the Latin tone leading into the melody’s three horn harmony. The timbre of trumpet, trombone and alto provided for a soothing texture but when it came time to solo the silky smooth form metamorphosed into funkiness as Allen and Gordon wailed on the changes both employing a range of emotive tools including slides, growls, and trills a la Lee Morgan. To my pleasure, Gordon’s solo was more outside the changes than I had expected from such an “in” player.
Allen’s lead line on the second tune, “Crisis” by Freddie Hubbard, provided great dynamic contrast between the head and the bridge and though I had never heard of the song it really made me think of a Clifford Brown tune (like “Ceora” or “Joy Spring”). The thematic and rhythmic contrast between the head and the bridge was accented very well by the group, with strong leadership from the rhythm section.
For the third tune Morris introduced “A Wheel Within a Wheel,” a tune by fellow altoist Bobby Watson, a killer alto player in his own right who is known by many for his work with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in the late 70s and early 80s. I immediately sprung to the edge of my chair knowing Watson’s music to be extremely intriguing and fun. My gut hunch proved to be correct for this tune was easily the best one of the night. Morris showed homage to Watson by leading out with an inspired alto solo followed by Gordon and an impassioned solo by Allen who played with Watson in the 80s in Charlie Persip’s Superband. Summey hinted at a 2 feel on top of the tune’s ¾ meter with brushes as Allen further contributed to the song with a spur of the moment collective improv section. The noise was “off the hook”, to use the parlance of our times. The band built its energy to a climatic point with much help from Summey and the rhythm section slowly bringing back the head.
The set closed with another Hubbard original “Sky Dive.” As before Ruiz’ contributions were priceless to the band’s feel while also entirely connected to Summey’s rhythmic figures, which also pushed Allen and Gordon to their upper limits.
At first my instincts told me that Byron Morris was a dilettante; a wannabe musician with little chops. But it later occurred to me that what he does is extremely important for the music and the musicians. He is keeping a tradition alive while employing some of the best talent the region has to offer. The songs that the band plays are not necessarily well known and thus they expose the works of jazz masters like Hubbard, Watson, and Henderson to a wider audience. And while Morris is no virtuoso, his task is a noble one which should be supported and continued for years to come.
Unity’s latest CD, Y2K, is available at Amazon.com and features all those on the Blues Alley gig minus Gordon. Gerald Pennington is the trombonist instead.