Joe Morris: Beautiful Existence and Rob Brown: Radiant Pools

Clifford Allen By

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Improvised music is based on conviction, the belief in the "rightness of what one is playing, a sort of forward-moving directive of sound hinging in part on the ability of one's work to stand equally with the entire history of music (to paraphrase art critic Michael Fried). But improvisation, though certainly a defining action, is also a hotbed of diffuse activity and ambiguity (i.e., can you define the blues?).

This is not a pejorative statement in any sense; rather, the apex of improvised music is found in that work which seems to have no beginning or end, an infinite moment along a canvas field of motions and emotions popping out like optical flickers that one can't pinpoint. Repetition gets one's attention, but the expanse is what lasts.

Joe Morris
Beautiful Existence
Clean Feed Records

Guitarist and sometime contrabassist Joe Morris is a stalwart of the Boston creative music community who has worked with multi-instrumentalist Lowell Davidson, bassist Jon Voigt and drummer Laurence Cook. Morris' work also shows some similarities to the music of Paul Bley who, like Davidson, has a tendency to waver between tonal centers and emphasize a nonlinear pulse. On his latest disc, Morris is joined by regular companions drummer Luther Gray and bassist Timo Shanko, and alto firebrand Jim Hobbs for six original compositions.

Morris's music is laced with a veneer of impregnable ambiguity, though at its core it's a subtly gradated field imbued with coiled energy and dusky action. Like his pianist forbears, he has a penchant for intense phrase repetition which, to these ears, has almost no dictatorial or directive effect—it's concentrated, yet extremely expansive. Sometimes, as in "Knew Something, minimalism is edged into a heavily Africanized vamp, where drummer Luther Grey takes the lilting theme into the call-and-response of a Central African drum choir.

"Real Reason is a poly-tempo and darkly romantic theme that falls somewhere in between Bley, Davidson and the New York Art Quartet in its independent/interdependent conversations. The title track seems to grow out of Carla Bley's compositional bag, jagged, playful trills and a subtly gritty undertow leading into fleet runs by the leader and Hobbs' bluesy ebullience that's straight out of Marion Brown.

Rob Brown
Radiant Pools

Most recently the guitarist has brought a studied approach to the contrabass in the groups of altoist Rob Brown and drummer Whit Dickey (Coalescence, with trumpeter Roy Campbell, also on Clean Feed). On Brown's latest side as a leader, Radiant Pools, the marriage is augmented by drummer Luther Gray and trombonist Steve Swell for five compositions by members of the group and two collective improvisations.

Where Morris' music can suggest a somber Mark Rothko-like atmosphere, even in its most lickety-split moments, the music of Rob Brown suggests an urbane fauvism not unlike the paintings of Bob Thompson (indeed, Brown's first date as a leader for Silkheart, Breath Rhyme, featured Thompson's art on the cover).

The session starts with Swell's burning free-bop "Boxed Set, spare Rudd/Tchicai dialogues opening up briefly before fat and stately architecture emerges over a frenetic pulse. Brown takes the reins in a scorching open floodgate of tumult and lyric, a hearkening back to the young Roscoe Mitchell, when his sinewy blueprints came as much from the stomach as the brain. It's hard not to see the Grachan Moncur III connection in the theme of "Out of the Lurch, a moody near-tango with a bit of Monk-around-the-corner thrown in. Certainly the alto-trombone front line does nothing to dispel a McLean-Moncur comparison, Morris setting up an unflinching vamp as Gray works to fracture it.

As a bassist, Morris seems at his best when his anchor is at the forefront—his own "King Cobra is a funky study in subtle modulation. For sure, the music here does cover as many broad expanses as condensed regions; the loose, open conversations of "Semantics-1 and "Semantics-2 are measured contrapuntal vistas, despite lacking even the loose thematic grounding that operates over much of the equally sparse title track. This is creative music with certain aesthetic nodes, but what's common to both Radiant Pools and Beautiful Existence is that these points are very wide, indeed.

Tracks and Personnel

Beautiful Existence

Tracks: Smear Spring; Some Good; Knew Something; Real Reason; King Cobra; Beautiful Existence.

Personnel: Joe Morris: guitar; Jim Hobbs: alto saxophone; Timo Shanko: bass; Luther Gray: drums.

Radiant Pools

Tracks: Boxed Set; Semantics-1; Out of the Lurch; Radiant Pools; King Cobra; Semantics-2; Swarm Village.

Personnel: Rob Brown: alto saxophone and flute; Steve Swell: trombone; Joe Morris: bass; Luther Gray: drums.

Visit Joe Morris and Rob Brown on the web.


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