Saturday, June 1, 2013

Interview with Joe Morris

Interview with Joe Morris
(By producer Frank Tafuri)

Tafuri: You've made quite a few albums now in different band configurations, including two or more with your quartet, and yet you feel like Underthru is something really different.  Why to you feel that way?
Morris: I try hard to only record music that's different than what I've already done in terms of the feel, or the overall flow.  I try to present a different kind of space of experience for us as players and for the listener.  Actually I've led five quartet recordings including Illuminate and Elsewhere.  And three with Mat Maneri on violin.  Underthru is less turbulent than A Cloud of Black Birds and less tightly wound and arranged than You Be Me.  This CD is more relaxed, more spacious, cooler in feel than the other quartet CDs.  Underthru is down (in the cool sense), but moves ahead.   Mat, Chris, and Gerald are really strong and totally original voices

Tafuri: Beyond the feel of Underthru, the tunes on the album seem to fit together compositionally.  How did you go about arriving at the pieces on the album?
Morris: I tend to write groups of tunes that hopefully fit together and also contrast each other.  My understanding of repetoire as a "free jazz" artist allows me to attempt different theamatic and structural material to alter the pattern of our performance.   So I write what I think will give us a place to play freely and not repeat ourselves.  Sometimes no theme or structure is a very confining thing.  Often the freest or the most structured parts are invisible in the performance anyway and also mutually supportive.  I work really hard on the sequence of each recording so that they can be heard like a story.  Hopefully the listener can fill in the content of the story.

Tafuri: On the other hand, if one gets out and listens to your various albums, there's quite a variety of music presented there -- even beyond the different makeups of the groups.  How do you go about anticipating your next album?
Morris: I'm trying to bring out as many aspects and meanings as I can from my music.  I want to be true to who I am but expand the function of it all.  It starts with some vague sense of a kind of feel.  Then it usually takes a few months to decipher that feel.  Then I start to write the pieces to capture that feel.  I try to edit out the parts that sound too technical or complicated.  Keep it clear.
Tafuri: Your compositions are a reflection of your unique style of playing and both your playing and tunes have been turning heads and making people pay attention to your unique style.   We've known each other a few years now, but I don't think I've ever asked you how you arrived at your style.  And, related to that, did you start out playing as "unconventionally" as you do now or was it an evolution?

Morris: I remember the day I made the decision to try not to play like other guitarists.  I figured that if someone was unique enough to come up with their own thing and inspire me, the least I could was leave their thing alone and try to deal with my own.  It was clear to me from the start that jazz is completely about being unconventional and unique.   The real body of work is made up of the inventions of unconventional musicians.   I take that model and I try to deal with the primary influences that those musicians made us aware of and I try to speak about those things with my own voice.   My way of playing is just an effort to deal with the truest version I know of the meaning and motion of the music.  So instead of learning to play the guitar by just studying guitarists, I studied the asthetics of the musicians who were the most original, and I tried to trust my own version of what they suggseted we deal with.  Adding to those suggestions is the ultimate goal.  My version is not fixed.  It's changing all the time.
Tafuri: You said "The real body of work is made up of the inventions of unconventional musicians."  Who are some of those musicians and why are you attracted to them?

Morris: The list is endless. The point isn't who did what, but what they did.  Monk never ceases to amaze me, of course.  The range of feeling in his tunes is enormous.  Dolphy and his ability to contribute to every major area of the music during his time.  Sun Ra because he refused to limit himself.  He played whatever he wanted to play. I could go on and on.  The point is that they all worked off of a knowledge of a very clear sub-structure that is common to anyone who has something to say in this kind of music, and they filled it in with their own content.  Some of it is fun, some of it is serious, some is sad and some is like science, but it's all about people and life and nature and mystery.
Tafuri: Getting back to Underthru for a minute, would you tell us a little about each tune on the album?

Morris: The title piece is a medium tempo vamp in 6/4 with a freely placed overlayed melody.  The violin plays the first solo which allows me to do some very spare comping. Writers always say that I don't play chords or comp.  The main reason for me to work in a quartet is so I can comp.  I do a lot of it but I try to never do it in a predictible way so they miss it.
" Remarks" is a blues.  Each phrase of the melody can be played at any tempo.  The melody is intentionally loose.  That's the dynamic blues part.  The kind of "bridge" part of the piece is a trill/swell which creates a strong mysterious dynamic.

"Routine 3" works as a catapult into a kind of vertical swing.  I love to improvise using big intervals and try to make them sound like a clear melody.  Mat has his own way of playing in this context.  Chris' solo on this piece is beautiful.

"Two Busses and a Long Walk" is what I call a flowthru melody structure. Mat, Chris and Gerald react to the melody I play.  The melody suggests a certain sensibility, kind of exotic.  Of course, there is a long history of exotic tunes in jazz.  I've written and recorded a few of them.  The piece is very open ended.

The last piece "Manipulatives" is what I call a spring board.  The head, like a lot of my tunes has all the reference material we need to construct a performance.  These kinds pieces seem simple, but it's really hard to write a new one.  They are intentionally short and dynamic.  Something to jump off of.

Tafuri: You've been doing this for quite a few years and you're still doing it.  Why do you think it's taken people so long to "catch up" to you, if you will?  And have they really "caught up"?
Morris: Some people have caught up.  Not enough have though.  You're right, I'm still doing it and I'm just getting started.  It's my job to be out front.  I'm doing my own thing with tremendous musicians who are doing their own things.  We aren't interpretive artists or genre benders and we aren't trying to shock people.  We are searching our souls and trying to touch people in an honest way with music.  I knew when I decided to do this with my life that it would be hard.  Part of the reward though is knowing that I haven't done one contrived thing to get over.  People will catch up, but more importantly, new people are into this.  Listeners looking for their own experiences.   They know that we are playing to them now.  We aren't playing to the academy waiting for their approval.  The audience that gets what we do knows that the reward is in hearing the flow of sound, melody and rhythm.  If they listen carefully the logic, patterns, and expression will reveal themselves.  This music is for and about the people listening.

Tafuri: With so much critics' attention, how's the gigging going?  Has that acclaim translated into more or better gigs?
Morris:   I have two things to be grateful for in that department: I have more gigs than I used to have and not enough of them.

Tafuri: If you could have the "perfect" gig, within reason, what would that be?
Morris: Six months with a guarantee plus a percentage of the door in a small club in New York that has never had music before.  New people would hear us and mark a time in their lives hearing what we play.

Tafuri: Here's another, let's say, "fun" question.  If you could play with anyone, living or dead, who (and you can pick more than one) would that be and why?
Morris: I love Monk, Dolphy, Jimmy Lyons and Steve McCall the most, but the crew I play with now are really in it.  Mat, Chris and Gerald are as solid and as great at what they do as any before them.  I want to play with them now and lay down our own history. Just because the century is over that doesn't mean the World is ending.  Time will continue and music lovers will want to remember this period for what happened now.  Other people can spend their lives focusing on the past.  We're playing for now.  If people listen to this music and think about their lives, they'll have another way to see themselves in their own time.