Joe Morris may be inspired by the traditions of Chicago blues, free-jazz and West African music, but the 47 year-old guitarist, bassist and bandleader continues to develop his own musical language and vocabulary. While the New Haven-born musician and composer is currently on the faculty in the Jazz and Improvisation Department at the New England Conservatory, he still tours the new music circuit with his own groups, and also collaborates with fellow creative improvisers William Parker, Joe Maneri, Matthew Shipp, Lawrence “Butch” Morris, and Ken Vandermark. In the last two decades, Morris’s intricately edgy innovations have been documented on nearly 30 recordings for various labels, including ECM, Aum Fidelity, Omnitone, Knitting Factory, Leo, Soul Note, and hatOLOGY.
1. Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane
“Why Was I Born?” (from Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane, Prestige OJCCD 300-2). Recorded in 1958. Kenny Burrell, guitar; John Coltrane, tenor saxophone
BEFORE: The guitarist has a great sound. Is this Jim Hall? No, he’s not playing like Jim Hall. His voicings are bigger. I’m trying to figure out who the saxophonist is, but it’s hard because it’s so plainly stated. Oh, it’s Coltrane and Kenny Burrell. One little inflection and one note gave it away. Well that makes sense why it sounds so incredibly clear and the guitarist’s sound is so good. I haven’t listened to this since I was a kid. Kenny plays such choice notes and he’s impeccable in his technique. His time is really good and his sound is really great. He and Joe Pass and Grant Green are so great that they’re beyond criticism, you know?
AFTER: Before Kenny Burrell played like that, no one played like that. It’s just as much about invention as it is about being correct. For as long as I’ve been playing the guitar it’s been assumed that that’s the correct way to play. I don’t think it was the correct way for Kenny Burrell. It was the creative way for Kenny Burrell. And without him, and Herb Ellis, and Sal Salvador and guys like that, that style of playing never would have existed. They invented that creative way of playing the guitar and that’s why they’re great.
2. Henry Threadgill
“Shake It Off” (from Everybody’s Mouth’s A Book, PI 01) Recorded in 2001. Henry Threadgill, alto saxophone, flute; Bryan Carrott, vibraphone, marimba; Brandon Ross, electric guitar; Stomu Takeishi, electric bass; Dafnis Prieto, drums.
BEFORE: Is this Brandon Ross? This is (the group) Harriet Tubman, right? No? Brandon’s the only guy left that plays, and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, like fusion. You know, he says this is the music we came up with, this is what I play. But he has a modern take on it that’s rough, sort of like Blood Ulmer. Kind of harmolodic in a way, but not. (listens more) Yeah, so this is Henry Threadgill.
AFTER: Oh, this is the brand new thing. I’m kind of surprised that the rhythm section isn’t more interesting… the drums and the bass sound kind of old-fashioned. But it’s all very cohesive, which doesn’t always happen in this kind of music. Brandon’s very sincere about being an electric guitarist of the fusion era. I like that about him. I’ve known him for a really long time and I always liked his playing. This is Bryan Carrott? Yeah, he’s great. I haven’t listened to a lot of Henry’s stuff lately, but I’m a disciple of Air, and Henry knows personally how much I love his music cause I’ve told him a million times. I love Henry. I think he’s a genius and I’m surprised that people aren’t more interested in him now. I’m also surprised that the rhythm section is working the way they’re working in this music. It’s not like it’s bad. This is a great drummer. It’s just surprising that it’s going like this. When Henry’s doing this electric stuff, it’s melodic, but it’s textural too. That’s cause he’s such a good writer, he can make that happen.
3. George Barnes
“Zebra’s Derby” (from The George Barnes Octet, Soundies SCD 4122) Recorded 1946-51. George Barnes, electric guitar; Bob Morton, Eddie Swan, clarinet, bass clarinet; Phil Wing, English horn, oboe; Tommy Miller, flutes, piccolo; Earl Backus, rhythm guitar, Jack Fascinato, piano; Hal Taylor, bass; Frank Rullo, drums.
BEFORE: Django? This is really cool. Is this Eddie Lang? Wow. I think I’m stumped on this one. It sounds like 30’s music played in the early 50’s. A little corny. I can’t think of who would have a band with that instrumentation. It’s a really good player, the way he peels the note off the chord.
AFTER: George Barnes! Years and years ago people used to tell me about him. He’s got a lot of chops. (looks at the cover photo) He’s got a nice guitar too; it’s looks like an old Gibson L-5. I had a teacher in Connecticut who mentioned him to me, but I never really listened to him. I don’t know that you could get much of his music for a long time. Yeah, the band was very cool. I like hearing the guitar as a lead voice in an ensemble, and he played great, so clean. Really cool.
4. Lee Konitz & Jim Hall
“ERB” (from The Lee Konitz Duets, Milestone VDJ-1571 Japanese re-issue) Recorded in 1967. Lee Konitz, alto saxophone; Jim Hall, electric guitar.
BEFORE: This strikes me as something European because of all the harmonics. (listens more) Maybe not. The guitar player is now playing clusters and melodic accompaniment behind the saxophonist, which the European guys don’t generally do. They’ll stay on the pitch stuff and the harmonics. The saxophonist is starting to play lines too, which doesn’t usually happen, so I‘m steering away from the Europeans. I don’t think the guitar player has really dealt with the problem of doing this kind of thing. This is very hard to do and he’s sort of not developing it. It doesn’t really get started. It’s like they don’t know which thing they want to do; do they want to play off of pitches, or do they want to play off of melody, clusters, or a tonal center? The saxophonist sounds more capable of doing it than the guitar player.
AFTER: Well that proves me totally wrong. But still, that wasn’t totally successful. I’ll give Jim Hall the credit for trying to do something that hadn’t been done before. I suppose in its day it was kind of interesting, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. I’m surprised that it’s Jim Hall…that’s the problem with the guitar though. For a long time it couldn’t figure out how to play new music. So it played sort of modal things. It’s hard to play big intervals on the guitar, you have to practice a whole other thing. The guitar lends itself to small intervals, 2nds, minor 3rds, 4ths, things like that. It’s not tuned to 5ths like a violin, so it doesn’t automatically open up the harmonic sound. It’s very tight. What it meant is that someone like Tal Farlow had to figure out how to play these wide intervals, and people are still trying to do it. I don’t know if it’s worked yet but I think it has a lot to do with making the decision you’re just a guitar player and you’re going to figure out a way to play this kind of music. And I don’t think that was happening very much in the 60’s. That sort of sounds like a modern failure. So if it’s an old failure, I guess I’m just ignorant (laughs). But it still doesn’t work.
5. Sammy Price
“Rib Joint” (from Rib Joint, Savoy Jazz 4417) Recorded in 1956. Sammy Price, piano; Mickey Baker, guitar; King Curtis, tenor sax; Leonard Gaskin, bass; Bobby Donaldson, drums.
BEFORE: Well, this is tough. Oh man. I want to say it’s something like really early Albert Collins, Buddy Guy or somebody. I guess this is rhythm & blues, right? It’s basically rock & roll changes. I don’t know who’d be playing guitar on that. I’m stumped. It’s raunchy. It’s roadhouse. It’s blues but it’s got a kind of jump time feel. It’s early electric blues. I like it. I love this kind of stuff.
Is this challenging music for you to play?
Yeah. Every music is challenging to play, if you get it right. This is the sound of people still figuring out what to do, so it’s got that raw edge. I think it’s great. It gets people to dance. It’s party music. I love it. Who is it?
AFTER: I never would have gotten that.” Rib Joint.” Right, that’s perfect.
6. David Fiuczynski
“Amandala” (from Fiuczynski’s Headless Torsos-Amandala, Fuze 8899-2) Issued in 2001. David “Fuze” Fiuczynski, guitar; Fima Ephron, bass guitar; Daniel Sadownick, percussion, Gene Lake, drums.
BEFORE: Right off the bat I think it’s Bill Frisell. No? Well then I want to say it’s Vernon Reid. They’ve both done adventurous things with this kind of sound. Dave Tronzo? This is a blurry kind of space. When you get into the effects and the music is so simple, the specifics of how you would stand out are harder to define. There are a whole bunch of guys who do this kind of stuff; the list is kind of long. A lot of people have done this kind of thing because it’s a gig. You get paid and you think the audience will like it. To me, there’s way too much of it. It’s like this is one of the things you’re supposed to do as a guitar player. Me, I like Blood Ulmer. If I’m gonna play big, loud electric guitar, it’s gonna rock hard, real hard, and not be on the fence between floating dreamy music and screaming electric guitar. This is too much like commercial music to me. Now I’ll probably go to Hell for this. It’s a really valid area to work in. I mean it’s no easier to distinguish yourself in that than any other kind of music. It’s really hard to play instrumental music as a big, loud electric guitar player and not sound like a jillion other guys. I think this is sort of generic.
AFTER: Oh, this is Dave Fiuczyski. I’m not surprised. I know some people who really like him. To me as a guitar player it has a problem. It doesn’t seem to deal with the issues you have to deal with if you want to be different. It’s a manner of guitar playing that other people invented. I just don’t know how you would listen to this. It’s lacking the energy of the R&B or even the George Barnes, and the music’s not interesting like Threadgill. I think it’s run of the mill. I know a lot of people like that kind of guitar playing. I don’t. I saw Pete Cosey about 10 times. He was great. He took the Hendrix thing and put it in another environment and extended it. That environment hasn’t changed. There’s no new sound environment, except the one that Bill Frisell has created. Do something else.
7. Marc Ribot
“St. James Infirmary” (from Saints, Atlantic 83461-1) Recorded in 2001. Marc Ribot, electric guitar.
BEFORE: St. James Infirmary. Well I’ll tell you, it sounds like Hubert Sumlin, but I know it‘s not. I think it’s a modern guy. A little too much technique. I wonder if it’s Marc Ribot? Yeah, I thought it was because Marc Ribot is somebody who can really deal with this kind of sound, and is happy doing it. He’s a good guitar player. There’s a way of playing the guitar where you use all these different sounds that exist in the history of electric guitar and he’s really good at doing that. I just heard this John Zorn thing where he plays with exotica, a kind of cornball guitar, but he sounds great on it. It’s a little bit of objectifying something that was created sincerely, so I have issues with that as a musician. But it’s still really nice to listen to. If he’s playing this without overdubbing, it’s amazing. If it is overdubbed, the arrangement is really great. So as music goes, it’s really nice. From my standpoint, I’d rather make something from nothing than re-invent something, but I like hearing the guitar like this and he’s playing really well. He manages to pull this off without being mannered. I always want to hear the thing I’ve never heard before. That’s what excites me about music.
8. Nat “King” Cole Trio
“Body & Soul (from The Best of Nat King Cole Trio, Capitol Jazz CDP 7 98288 2) recorded in 1944. Nat “King” Cole, piano; Oscar Moore, guitar; Johnny Miller, bass.
BEFORE: Mmmmm. For a second I thought it was Johnny Smith. Oh, is it Oscar Moore? I’ve never heard this before and I’ve heard a lot of those Nat Cole things.
AFTER: Oscar Moore, he’s bad. He’s got language. With those great guitar players you hear the phrase being played. It’s like a horn; they play something, then there’s a breath, then there’s another phrase. You can hear them singing inside their head while they‘re playing. He’s one of those guys. Plus, he’s so cool. This whole band is so cool. I’m glad I got that one.
Have you ever played in that kind of trio setting?
Not for a long, long time and never that well. Has anybody?
9. Noel Akchote & Eugene Chadbourne
“Body & Soul” (from Noel Akchote: Lust Corner, Winter & Winter 910 019-2) Recorded in 1996. Noel Akchote and Eugene Chadbourne, electric guitars.
BEFORE: There’s something about the sound that’s really familiar. Is it an overdub or a duo? It’s the metal shards, shrapnel guitar sound. It’s a kind of lugubrious sound, and there’s an underlying pedal tone that holds it together. I’m not a big fan of that kind of sound. But beyond that I have no idea who that is, or what it is.
AFTER: (laughs) Well, I thought for a second it might be Eugene, but it didn’t really sound like Eugene. I don’t know. I think it’s a little obvious to deconstruct a standard. There’s something about Oscar Moore playing Body & Soul that’s of his time, and he’s playing it with great sincerity. When I hear these guys play it, I hear them adding things to it that don’t need to be there. Either play the tune, or play the other stuff. Try to play it sincerely. That’s very hard to do. And if you do, you might actually get someone to listen to it sincerely. But that’s just my taste, you know? I don’t mean to say that it shouldn’t exist or anything. I’m not really a deconstructionist. This works on a different level than how I listen to music. I don’t listen to music with irony. I don’t have irony in my music. I guess I’m simple-minded.
Does playing standard repertoire with new language automatically make it ironic?
No, I don’t think it does. I don’t think the thing that Marc Ribot did was ironic. It was technical. It’s good to be able to delineate the aesthetics. We should always remember that there’s emotional content and aesthetic meaning in music. If the meaning is ironic then we should be able to talk about it. And if we did, we’d know the difference between say William Parker’s music and Eugene Chadbourne’s music. William Parker’s music is free of those things. He has a different stance. His attitude is not old-fashioned; it’s very modern. Whereas what we just listened to is ironic and modern. It doesn’t mean they should be arrested for doing it. In fact Eugene is great at doing that. He’s a genius at doing that, and he’s a great guitar player too. He’s sincere in what he’s doing. I just think that it’s an added or subtracted component to what I’m interested in. I know that people will deconstruct Monk and it doesn’t sound as good as Monk. And people can deconstruct Body & Soul and it doesn’t sound as good as Oscar Moore playing it.
10. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
“Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho” (from Le Hot Club De France Archive Series, Milan MLJC-35677-2). unidentified recording date. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, electric guitar, vocal.
BEFORE: Oh my god, you’re giving me hard stuff. Oh man, I know who this is but I can’t remember her name. She’s playing the guitar too, right? Yeah, she’s great. I saw her on a TV documentary the other night. She’s a killer guitar player. Is she going to solo on this? (solo elicits big laugh) Yeah, she’s brutal. I think she’s one of the first to play electric guitar in gospel music. Great!
AFTER: Would you deconstruct this? Why would you? Can anything be so beautiful and real and human? I just became aware of her recently. She’s bad. She had a cool guitar too. I can’t remember what it was, but it was an oddball 1950’s solid body kind of thing. She also played acoustic. Boy, you’re really putting me through the ringer. This is fun.
11. Anouar Brahem
“Astrakan Cafe (1) (from Astrakan Cafe, ECM 1718) Recorded in 1999. Anouar Brahem, oud
BEFORE: Well, it sounds like an ECM record. The reverb gives it way. I’m thinking it might be Anouar Brahem. So he’s playing oud on this? I like him. He’s good, a very modern kind of oud player. The echo is a little bit too much. I like field recordings. The echo gives it a polished air of meaning that I’d just as soon avoid. I don’t like those production values so much. With the echo, it’s like the producer is forcing me to be awed. There’s a certain kind of mind game going on. It gives me the feeling I get walking through a museum. You know, like overwhelmed by the art of it all. I hate that feeling. Instead, I’d rather just look at it and not have the majesty of it all imposed on me. I’d rather find the grit, and the majesty in the simplicity of it. It’d be better without the echo.
AFTER: The sound changes in the mastering. When we made our record for ECM there was no reverb when we recorded. That was added in the mastering. It makes it sound like the heavens are singing to me. I don’t need to feel that when I listen to this. The music’s good enough, the melody’s good enough and I don’t need the synthetic reverb. But then again, maybe it’s not synthetic reverb. Maybe they recorded in a big open space. (checks the notes) Yeah, they recorded this at the Monastery of St. Gerold in Austria, so that’s a natural echo and that’s different. Now I feel stupid for going off.
12. The Fitting Room
“ Oranges Ameres” (from The Fitting Room, Enja 94112) Recorded in 2000. Marc Ducret, acoustic guitar; Vincent Courtois, cello.
BEFORE: I can’t figure out if that’s a bass or a cello. I think it’s a cello. It could be Ernst Reisinger, Hank Roberts, or my first guess would be Tristan Honsinger. It’s not Derek Bailey on guitar. Hmm, it’s a short one. It was a bit on the fence; does it swing, does it not swing? It’s got that angular thing like they think it swings (laughs), but I don‘t think it does. It almost sounded like James Emory, but again it was a little generic, so I couldn’t tell.
AFTER: (laughs) Oh, well that explains a lot. There are things in Europe where that kind of playing is the status quo right now. It’s a little Derek Bailey, a little melodic, a little this and that, but nothing particularly distinctive. So they do their up-tempo tune, they do their slow tune, they do their sound tune. It’s kind of mannered stuff. Is it classical music? Is it new music? Is it jazz? It’s sort of all those things, and to me that makes it nothing.
It’s improvised, yes?
So what! If the art of improvisation ends up meaning that you get this bland tasting stew, then who cares? Write a piece and play it well. Is the guitarist comping for the cellist, or is he playing the line? It never blended together cause they rushed through the melody and the melody never went anywhere. To me it’s sort of pandering to a bunch of different things and not doing them very well. It’s just not distinctive. What it comes down to is shit or get off the pot. So you’re going to be the virtuoso new music guitar player. Who cares? We just listened to all these other guitar players who have a notable absence of virtuosity, except for Ribot who has real virtuosity and knows how to use it. The rest of them are inventers. So if you’re going to be a virtuoso, play something astonishing. And if you’re gonna be an inventor, be one. But you can’t be both, no matter what you think (laughs). I’m a hard-ass.
14. Arsenio Rodriguez
“Linda Cubana” (from Arsenio Rodriguez y Su Conjunto, Ansonia HGCD 1337) unidentified recording date. Arsenio Rodriguez, tres, unidentified group accompaniment.
BEFORE: This is great. Aw man, this is great stuff. I don’t know his name, but this is Cuban, right? What gives it away? The beat, and the sound of the double-string guitar, the tres. It’s nice, I like this music. What I like about this is that it’s got raunchiness, and it’s got figuring out going on. It’s really well done and there’s also something nasty about it.
AFTER: Arsenio Rodriguez, yeah. Ribot would know about this cause he knows all about that stuff, he’s deep into it. I love that whole tradition. This is great. All African music is a drum, and all Cuban music is African.
15. Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin
“Naima” (from Carlos Santana: Divine Light) Recorded in 1973. Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, guitars; Reconstruction and Mix Translation: Bill Laswell.
BEFORE: This is John McLaughlin with Carlos Santana. This is an old record from the 70’s. Naima. I think I bought this record when I was 16. I never thought Santana could keep up with McLaughlin. He always sounded like he couldn’t deal with him harmonically.
AFTER: It’s really cool to hear McLaughlin play Coltrane, because he really did apply that stuff to the guitar better than anyone else. Imagine if he did a record with a good rhythm section doing Coltrane tunes.
What are your three favorite guitar records?
Hendrix “Band of Gypsies,” Miles “On The Corner,” and Ornette “Body Mehta.”
This B&A was recorded for JazzTimes in 2002