Joe Morris: Singularity, Part 1-2

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...rather than being interested in a particular kind of music, I was always trying to find things that kept me interested and reminded me of that feeling of inspiration... to be surprised. I found that mainly in jazz and then in African folk music.
Part 1 | Part 2

Joe Morris first started playing the guitar in 1969, at the age of 14. He immediately took to the instrument and started a long process of self-instruction. During his high school years, he spent time playing with other students and listening to a wide variety of recorded and live music. Morris's major influences during this period included seminal free jazz revolutionaries like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy—as well as West African string music and 20th century classical composers. By the mid-'70s he had established himself as an improviser in Boston, organizing various groups to help realize his musical vision.

His recording career started in 1981 with the self-released LP Wraparound. After a two-year stint in New York in the late '80s, he returned to Boston to record his second Riti record, Sweatshop, a brilliant, steamy free funk trio outing. His Riti Records label released a handful of discs before 1991. Subsequently Morris's recorded output has gone through the roof, with recordings in a variety of configurations for Soul Note, ECM, Hat Hut, Leo, No More, and AUM Fidelity, among others. He has collaborated extensively with improvisers from Boston, New York (especially), Chicago, England, and elsewhere.

High points from his discography (in addition to the thoroughly recommended Sweatshop) include Thesis, an understated duo with Matthew Shipp; Three Men Walking, with fellow Bostonians Joe and Mat Maneri; A Cloud of Black Birds, a quartet disc with Mat Maneri; and the brand new solo acoustic record [as of 2001] Singularity.

Morris's abstract, idiosyncratic guitar style has been quite consistent on record and in performance. He has mostly stuck to the electric guitar, using a clean tone free of distortion or effects. His playing tends to be remarkably dense and organized, relying upon small intervals and angular, clustery runs to achieve momentum. Joe Morris's music demands and rewards attention from the listener. It's sufficiently open-ended that the listener often has to fill in gaps and use imagination to extrapolate his fragmentary themes. Morris has reinvented guitar improvisation with a visionary approach that places him far ahead of his peers on the instrument.

I spoke with Morris one night in March, 1998 in Boston. Our conversation revealed the amazing depth of thought and experience that has characterized Morris's work.

[Note: this interview was performed in 1998 but originally published in 2001. This 2005 update includes all of the original text, plus an updated discography. Readers may be curious to know that Joe Morris, currently a resident of New Haven, Connecticut, now plays the bass (see selected discography entries from 2002 onward in Part Two of the interview).]

AAJ: Tell me what kind of music you listen to these days.

Joe Morris: I don't listen to that much music, really. Quite honestly, I don't listen to music to be inspired to play music. I listen to the music that I do a lot. Then again, I listen to everything... I listen to every kind of music on the radio. I went through a period a few years ago where I listened to everything all the time for 10 or 15 years. Then I just got to the point where I really wanted to listen to my own music and the music that my friends made.

So today I heard an interesting piece on the radio... in my car I listen to everything from baroque music to everything else. I'm not that into much. I usually have some ideas that I think would be interesting to hear in music, but I don't usually hear it. And then sometimes I hear something that reminds me that I should open up my brain and not be so critical of everything. It's a funny thing... and it could be some folk singer, or anything, really.

AAJ: Can you go back for me? What was important to you when you used to listen to music a lot?

JM: When I first got into music, the first music I ever listened to was Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass. And I played the trumpet for a while. Then I got into the Beatles and I played the guitar. I was really into the Beatles. I'm still into the Beatles. Actually, I've been thinking a lot about John Lennon lately because I've been hearing some of the stuff he did after the Beatles, which is awesome. Totally amazing.

Then I was really into blues, Chicago blues and Delta blues. This was back in like 1970, when I was 15, you know. I was really practicing to play that way, and I got to be a pretty good blues guitarist, and then I got into Hendrix. I got into blues to understand Hendrix more. I got into Hendrix, but not to the point where I was copying Hendrix. I could play that stuff, but really, I was kind of quickly inspired by that stuff to try to do my own thing.

I was a really ridiculous truant in grammar school, so I really never went to high school. I went to alternative high school, which was sort of like hanging out with my friends. It was a student-run high school. You could do whatever you wanted as long as you did something (that was legal).

So I used to go to the New Haven library. (I grew up in New Haven, CT.) Yale is there, you know. I used to go to recitals at Yale, and hear everything from Rashied Ali, Leo Smith, Anthony Davis, to Stockhausen and the symphony every Friday night, and classical guitar recitals. I knew Michael Bolton, you know. His name was Michael Boloten then, and he was a good friend of my sister's, so I'd go hear him.

AAJ: You should do an album with him. That would be great.

JM: I don't think so. And then I used to go hear Eddie Buster, in an organ trio at the Top of the Town Cafe, when I was 16. It was in the ghetto, so I could go there and drink a tall Miller and sit there and just listen to the music. It was really cool—I used to do that all the time. I did that once a week for a couple years, by myself, you know. I was really into Ives, Ellington, Hendrix and Johnny Winter and the Allman Brothers. And then I got into Miles Davis and Coltrane.

My sister lived in Berkeley and hung around with some musicians there, including Ron Burton, who's a great pianist. She brought home Om, by John Coltrane. That was the first Coltrane I ever heard. And a couple of other things, and that was what I wanted to do. I have been really working the last couple of years to identify points when I got really inspired to be a creative musician. I think it happened when I was 14, for being a truant I got sent away to a state school. And I had an epiphany there. I'm actually working on a set of pieces about that period because it was really interesting. I have them all written. [For A Cloud of Black Birds (AUM Fidelity, 1998).]

And from that, rather than being interested in a particular kind of music, I was always trying to find things that kept me interested and reminded me of that feeling of inspiration... to be surprised. I found that mainly in jazz and then in African folk music. Really, more than anything in my life, traditional West African string music. That brings everything together. It brought all of the most radical classical music I could hear, all of the jazz, all of the blues, down to where it was supposed to be from, and it always seemed more sophisticated than everything.

So a lot of what I do is to try to get that kind of imagery, and that kind of texture in my music, without trying to lift it, and without trying to pretend that I'm an African. I take that stuff really seriously, and extend that aesthetic in my version. So that involves a lot of things, because the functional use of that music is so enormous, it's so broad. That's music for funerals, it's music for dancing, for every kind of human ritual that people have. Getting married, telling stories, storing history.

Everything that Black music in America is about is there, but without any of the racism. The struggle is different—it's more permanent. It's more about the land, about people actively involved in their lives without having to prove anything. It's fully realized. That's the thing that inspires me the most.

AAJ: How about African rhythm?

JM: It's tough for me, being a guitarist.

I always try to find things that have that element of mystery and surprise and don't get pedantic. I don't want anyone telling me how smart they are. I have equal respect for Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charles Ives, Olivier Messiaen and Anthony Braxton, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix. I'm not that unusual. There are a lot of people who feel that way. I don't draw any distinction.

AAJ: There's no class structure in the music.

JM: No, none whatsoever. There's good music and then there's not-as-good music.

The Ellington aesthetic: that's really the only way to do it. But with that in mind, I had things happen where I really saw things cross over. Like at a point when I was really interested in West African fiddle and lute music: really simple rhythms, unbelievable stuff... something done on two or three strings, but completely elevated music.

At the same time I was really into Messiaen, some of his percussion pieces and the smaller chamber pieces with percussion and brass. I saw this real connection—both those things can be religious and definitely be about nature (you know, Messiaen was all about nature). So I had some things happen in my music that connected through those things. I found what I was looking for in opposite sides of the world.

AAJ: I like the way you gesticulate with your guitar hand. That's very good. You're actually playing notes there.

JM: I never noticed that. I might have just started that tonight...

It's always work, you know.

It's not easy to be good at anything, that's for sure.

Also, if you're going to be any good at it, you can't put it in cement. It's gotta be, "I got a lot of work to do, this week, myself." It's always an ongoing process. I don't think of myself as a guitar player, like I'll get called for gigs and do whatever people want me to do, unless it's a creative project that's a challenge. But I'm not that interested in playing somebody else's music.

AAJ: Does anybody offer things like that?

JM: They used to, but I turned them down. I always liked playing funk, so I would do funk, because funk is hard. But I never was interested in having 40 different guitar sounds to fit different gigs. There's a certain art to doing that, but I could never do it. I like that, though, I admire people that can do that. It's a different kind of playing, a different use of music. But my thing has always been just to try to figure out another way to use a thing. It's raw material that I have to try to shape into something.

AAJ: So how about an integrative funk/free thing?

I have two bands. One has a record out since 1990 called Sweatshop. That's a trio. When I first started playing improvised stuff, it was loud and it was funky. It was electric, fusionish. Until fusion became fusion, and then it sounded horrible. When it was jazz- rock, I was really into it. Back in the 70's I did that. Then I got into other things.

As I started making records, people were saying that I didn't have a power trio sound. They would compare me to guys that were playing big loud stuff. So I said, I'll play big loud stuff, and show that I can do that. So we made this record Sweatshop, which I think is one of the best records I ever made. It's different from Blood Ulmer, but it's as dense. I admire Blood Ulmer, so I think that's a mountain to cross, and I crossed that mountain with Sweatshop.

Then I have another band, with a record coming out this year on About Time, called Racket Club, which is the next step from Sweatshop. Sweatshop was about the blues, pentatonic scales on the guitar, a trio. Racket Club is more about the drums. The tunes are built on vamps. It's more about a band like that with drums that actually work rhythmically, rather than like fusion drumming. It's like tribal drumming, with a really huge loud polyphonic band (a six-piece band). That's coming out this year. I made it five years ago, and I couldn't get anybody to put it out, and then the people who decided to put it out decided to do that two almost three years ago, and they've been really slow to get it out. But they've been good people, so I don't ...

AAJ: It must be hard to shop around to release things. Do people come to you? Do you go to people?

JM: Well, it's different now than it was a few years ago.

AAJ: Yeah, you're a big star now.

JM: I don't know if I am that, but I definitely get more opportunities than I can take, which is great. It used to be that I would send stuff around and get no response. The first guy that ever did respond to me was [Giovanni] Bonandrini, at Soul Note. He rejected two of my tapes. He was the first guy to pick one up. Other people never would respond. There are people who have asked me to do stuff since then, who didn't respond then and basically came to me saying, "Where were you?" I was here all along, but they waited until someone else took a chance, and when that started to take off critically, then they showed up.

Ultimately it's pretty hard for anybody to do it, so I appreciate whatever I can get. It's not like anybody's really getting rich off this. People have to think that your music is good to make records.

AAJ: What advice would you give to somebody just starting out?

JM: It depends where they're at musically. If they feel as if their music is ready to be presented... I tell students (who study with me privately or in workshops) to take their music seriously, and to document it every way they can. And if they feel it's time to document it, to document it. But, at the same time, while they take it seriously, they have to keep looking for people who've done more work. You can't get too big a head. I see people like that now, they've done one or two things, and they're good, but they don't have the depth that people who've done more work have. So they may prove that they do, and they get a little cocky sometimes, and I don't know if it helps them.

In this kind of music, there are people who are 80 years old who have had fewer gigs than I've had, who are tremendous. So you can't get too self-absorbed about what's happening with you. The thing that I'm doing is not about that. It's really about being part of that group. Like getting permission to be a part of that group. So you went through it respectfully, you know.

Having humility is really hard to do. You have to be able to have humility and be very bold at the same time. But that's the payback. Being able to participate in that little subculture. To me, that's the reason for doing this. That is the thing. It's a parallel world. It's a rare thing. I can talk to people and feel as if I'm in the tradition that Eric Dolphy and Derek Bailey are in. That's amazing to me. I get chills when I think about that, because I admire their artistic commitment, and their humanity. That's my goal, to be part of a thing like that.

AAJ: I think it comes through in the music. You have to have a deeper sense of tradition to make that work.

JM: There's been a lot of talk about tradition in the last 20 years, in music. A lot of it's overdone. It's like, "Yeah, okay, it's there. We know." I don't know anybody who would deny their desire to be connected to people who are of a similar aesthetic. But also, when everybody gets too into it, you're talking about living in the past.

When you think about anybody who's really innovative in this music, like Dolphy... yeah, of course they're connected to people before them, like any other art form. But they're about right now, what's happening right here in this room. You know, it's relevant to the day. People like Matt [Shipp] and I are kind of down on the level of discussion about the tradition, and how institutionalized it got. Yeah, I think anyone starting out should know everything they can know about everything. That's what this is about. This is a way of showing, mirroring your growth. You do this and you can see what you learn. And you can see if it works. Yeah, there's business, and success issues, there's drive and planning and strategy. But if that becomes a prime goal, your music's just going to go straight to hell.

AAJ: This is a very Zen attitude you have here. Allowing it to happen.

JM: I think it's a life process. I suppose if you got some recognition and got rich, like in other art forms. I used to be an art handler in New York, and I used to go to Basquiat's studio. That guy was like me and my friends, but he made some painting and become a millionaire in a year. You can't do that with music. It's pretty grass-rootsy. You're down in the trenches all the time. You can't walk through a room of people who are interested in you and have an attitude. You talk to people, you hang out with people. I think it's a really high art form that by its nature can't be compromised. That's why I got in it.

AAJ: I think there's an element of personality that is cool to explore. Everybody's got a different way of saying things. If they're doing their job, they're expressing something that's unique to them. So whom of the people you've heard who share this mindset would you like to record with?

JM: I used to really want to play with Cecil Taylor badly. I saw it as a hurdle. If I could be a guitarist that played with Cecil... and I understand his music very well. I did get to play with him once in a rehearsal. It sounded great. I could do it. I was up all night before it happened, and I was really nervous. I got up there and played, and I said, this could be my only chance, so I let it rip. And it was good. It was very good. At least I thought it was. And he liked it. I've known him for a long time. After that, it was like, "I did that." I suppose if he called me up, sure, I'd play with Cecil.

Playing with Matthew Shipp is a huge challenge. I also played with a pianist named Hans Poppel that no one knows about. I recorded with him almost two years ago, and the tape's coming out this year on Knitting Factory. You know, I still feel like I could make a big statement about the guitar with Cecil, but I feel like I've done that on my own, and that's fine.

I think if I really was willing to do the thing of getting in Cecil's band, which means...

AAJ: You have to be part of the entourage.

JM: Yeah, and that gets old. I don't know if I want to do that. So I did it, I proved it to myself, and I didn't really pursue it after that. I dunno... maybe it never would have happened, but it was pretty great to do it. I love Cecil.

You know, I know a lot about Ornette and Braxton. It would have been a kick to play with either of those. I've talked to both of them about it, over the years. But now I don't really see that either. I feel like I have earned my right to do what I want to do, and I don't have to ... anybody. That was a very hard thing to go through. I really tried to get those things, and they didn't happen, either because I wasn't good enough, or I wasn't in the right place, or some thing or another.

But I feel good. I have the right to do this, with having earned it a different way. I didn't have to be sanctioned by anybody in particular, which is a cool thing. Those guys are exactly like that. That's the beauty of those three guys (Braxton, Cecil, and Ornette): they fell right out of the sky. Yeah, they played with people here and there, like Paul Bley or Coleman Hawkins. But they just came out of a pod.

AAJ: There are people who have come out of Cecil's band who only became recognized after they had done things with him.

JM: Yeah, broke free of the constraints of being identified with that. And Ornette's like that, too. Some people can't break out of that. I feel lucky that people don't refer to me as the guitarist who used to play with Cecil Taylor. I'm glad about that. At one point I thought it would have been good, but...

AAJ: It's an education, just a different kind of education.

JM: Yeah. All three of those guys are geniuses. They're all in touch with the deepest parts of the music. And they all have their own take on it, which is pretty amazing. They're giants. But rather than being a follower of that kind of thing, I'd like to learn to understand all this stuff and elevate my stuff to that level. I would like to do that. Do it on the guitar. Be a guitarist, possessing that knowledge. The guitar needs that. There are great guitar players... I want to be part of that thing, being a guitarist. Try and extend the music the way all of those people have.

For more information visit Joe Morris and Joe Morris @ AUM Fidelity on the web. A complete listing of Riti Records releases is available here. You may also wish to read Allen Huotari's July '99 AAJ interview.

Color photo credit
© Mephisto


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