Joe Morris: MVP LSD, Elm City Duets, High Definition and Rejuvenation


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Joe Morris/Jon Voigt/Tom Plsek
The Graphic Scores of Lowell Skinner Davidson

Joe Morris/Barre Phillips
Elm City Duets
Clean Feed

Joe Morris Bass Quartet
High Definition

Flow Trio
ESP Disk

Guitarist/bassist-composer Joe Morris talks about one thing repeatedly: flow. He spoke about this facet of his music recently in a discussion with this writer about the late improvising composer Lowell Davidson. Davidson was a multi-instrumentalist who acted as a beacon to a number of younger Boston-based musicians in the '70s and '80s, including Morris. His music moved very slowly, hinging on sonic particles and lingering atmospherically, even as rhythms shifted. Those atmospheres could develop into extraordinarily piercing conditions felt objectively. Morris takes a page from that book and builds on it in four extremely varied recent recordings.

MVP joins Morris' guitar with bassist Jon Voigt and trombonist Tom Plsek, all of whom are fellow travelers in Davidson's sound world, for a program of ten compositions and one group improvisation. None of the pieces on The Graphic Scores of Lowell Skinner Davidson had been recorded before and their titles mostly correspond to the colored markings on the scores. "Blue Sky and Blotches" begins the set with vicious arco bass, Voigt hitting high harmonics and horsehair-swirling clusters. Trombone and bass unify in resonant long tones, almost like a single player's multiphonics, while Morris approximates the cutting clink of kalimba, Nigerian single-string violin and throaty blues playing. The guitarist's horizontal scrapings, which he calls riti (after the African instrument), are a result of playing with Davidson. He needed an approach to resonant harmonic clusters that wasn't confined to the same structures that European players were using, mostly in the wake of Derek Bailey. He darts gnatlike into high-pitched metallic buzz, then growls midrange before a half-scraped, half-strummed fleck emerges, adding latticework to the drone of trombone and bass. But behind all the activity is an easy detail, where Morris strums Jimmy Raney-esque chords and clipped upturns as Plsek and Voigt pitch and yaw with a wobbly, glottal strut.

The idea of extended technique, such a significant part of the landscape of contemporary improvisation is, to Morris, something of a misnomer insofar as the idea of improvisation itself is something that can extend one's technique. Bassist Barre Phillips' work also fits that axiom; he's long been on the forefront of free music as a player who finds new textural avenues through the whole of his instrument while retaining an extraordinarily classical poise. Though both Morris and Phillips had played in similar circles, it was in 2004 that they began formally working together and two years later recorded Elm City Duets. Though crackling scrapes and glissandi make for a spiky nest on the introductory piece and their spars search mutually, the clear bottom afforded by Phillips' pizzicato and Morris' folksy wandering on "Recite" makes for a measured and steady dance. Sure, the guitarist clambers a rickety waterspout of registers in parallel with heavy wooden thrum, but it's within a language directly tied to the instruments' regular habitats. Riti scrabble, the flat plunk of prepared strings and subtonal fingerboard slaps are a broadening of the vocabulary.

High Definition is yet another side of Morris—or two—as it presents him in a compositional light alongside his bass playing which, in tandem with drummer Luther Gray, serves the tunes' rhythmic tensions perfectly. Morris is joined here on eight originals by cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and saxophonist Allan Chase, the latter a collaborator on trumpeter John McNeil's excellent East Coast Cool (OmniTone, 2004). The opening "Skeleton" recalls some of Anthony Braxton's pianoless quartet work in the '70s, a slinky theme that moves through uneven cycles. Rather than ghost trance stop-time, though, Gray and Morris keep an unwavering beat underneath Chase's plowing and husky baritone and the gulping, brittle shrikes of Bynum's brass. Choruses of pots and pluck later, the theme returns as a sophisticated answer to any query of "what is free-bop?" Lilting multiple tempos signal "Morning Group," note cells hovering in a space continually active and clearly defined. Bynum takes Bill Dixon's teachings into his own space, clear and cube-like clusters that move forward while rhythm hangs back and shades the corners.

To come full circle, Rejuvenation is the first disc from the aptly-named Flow Trio: Morris on bass with tenor man Louie Belogenis and drummer Charles Downs (formerly known as Rashid Bakr). Belogenis has played with figures in the music as diverse as Ikue Mori, Rashied Ali and Sunny Murray and his approach to the tenor is reminiscent of early Joe McPhee, sandblasted wide-vibrato, full and breathy yet with a microcosmic sense of detail. After the solo harmonic exploration of "Reflection," a backwater poem of taut multiphonics and solitary keening, Morris and Downs enter for "Slow Cab". Their approach to rhythm is almost laconic it's so loose and hangs back from power trio expectations. Morris' bass playing is coolly repetitive, plucking distant outlines for Downs' cloudy gauze and Belogenis' measured, flinty outpourings. Even when the music increases in density, mallets ricocheting off hot tenor walls, the pace is very natural, almost restive. Morris' writing and choice of compatriots give a sense of directed motion to sound, reasserting the notion of swing as tension between actual and implied.

Tracks and Personnel

The Graphic Scores of Lowell Skinner Davidson

Tracks: Blue Sky and Blotches; Particles; Separate Blue X's; Gold Drop #2; Orange Cards; Index Card #3; Index Card #1; Index Card #2; Double Sheet; Gold Triptych; Gold Drop #1.

Personnel: Joe Morris: guitar; Jon Voigt: bass; Tom Plsek: trombone.

Elm City Duets

Tracks: Ninth Square; Recite; Saved Stones; June Song; Normal Stuff; Spirals; Translate; Got into some things.

Personnel: Joe Morris: guitar; Barre Phillips: bass.

High Definition

Tracks: Skeleton; Morning Group; Land Mass; Topics; Bearing; All-in-one; Super Spot; The Air Has Color.

Personnel: Joe Morris: bass; Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, trumpet and flugelhorn; Allan Chase: soprano, alto and baritone saxophones; Luther Gray: drums.


Tracks: Reflection; Slow Cab; Pick Up Sticks; Two Acts; Succor; Unfolding; Rejuvenation.

Personnel: Louie Belogenis: tenor saxophone; Joe Morris: bass; Charles Downs: drums.


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