Joe Morris a Free Jazz Genius, interview with Sergio Sorrentino (Februrary 2014)
Joe Morris (1955 ) is one of the greatest guitarists of free jazz and free music . He has numerous albums ( for major labels such as Leo, Aum Fidelity, ECM, Rare Noise) and boasts prestigious collaborations ( Matthew Shipp , William Parker , Joe and Mat Maneri , Butch Morris, and many others).
His style is very personal. Joe combines various inspirations (traditional, classical , avant-garde ) into a single, uninterrupted stream of improvisation always fascinating and highly expressive . His phrasing is always engaging and brilliant . And we can not agree with Gary Giddins when he wrote that ” if Ornette Coleman were Jim Hall , he would be Joe Morris.”
For lovers of Free Jazz , Joe Morris is undoubtedly their absolute and inimitable guitar hero . Whether in the form of electricity, is in the acoustics , Joe Morris manages to create effective and engaging free improvisations.
Dear Joe, your style is really unique. Can you tell us something about it? Have you use some standard chromatic lines or scales, patterns, arpeggios, etc…?
I use everything. I still practice scales, arpeggios. My goal with line playing is to arrive at melody and use my melodic ideas as a template that inspires new melodic ideas. I consider that on my worst day my playing will be the default version. . meaning that it will consist of what I have already acquired from my desire to create melody. On my best day there will be something new. It will then become part of my default. So I have built my playing off of my own playing mostly at this point.
For your phrases which musicians have influenced you?
There are so many. I like to know what everyone does. However I owe a great debt to the influence of many saxophonists, namely Jimmy Lyons, Ornette, Dolphy, Coltrane, Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and also to Cecil Taylor, Monk, Don Cherry, Sirone, Fred Hopkins, Alhaji Bia Konte (the kora master), Django Reinhardt, field recordings of African String music, Olivier Messiaen, Ives, Jimi Hendrix, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Baden Powell, John McLaughlin, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker Lowell Davidson and a few million more.
Your playing is very virtuosistic. Do you use some special exercises or methods?
I have had to create some of my own intervallic exercises and cluster fingerings in order to play them in performance, but I always improvise on everything like that all the time so I don’t get too strict about them. I don’t want exercises to replace music. My determination to be expressive and to be respectful of the area of music I endeavor to participate in, means that I have had to work hard to play well enough to lend credibility to what I do. I am quite critical of my playing and I never think of it as virtuosic. I think everyone plays better than I do. I’m always surprised to get that kind of response and very grateful.
Your album “Singularity” is a masterpiece. Can you tell us something about it?
For years I worked to find a way to play guitar with all of my fingers. At one point I just thought of myself as an American guitar player. So I viewed the tradition I was working in as not being a European classical on but instead an African and American one, and also of course and African/American one. And so I studied a lot of delta blues technique, ragtime, early jazz guitar and banjo and a lot of traditional African string music, made on harps, lutes and fiddles. I was also very interested in 20th century classical music and free music made by Coltrane, Cecil Taylor the AACM, Ayler, Dolphy, etc. And so my solo work is a synthesis of all of those thing filtered through my sense of invention, which I learned to trust through the long process of building my solo playing. Over the span of about 15 years those pieces revealed themselves to be actual unique technical ways of playing the guitar that also fairly easily showed the way in which I could improvise using them. Around the time of “Singularity” I abandoned the compositions, a couple of which I performed on my first solo recording “No Vertigo” (Leo 1993), and just used the techniques as the material for the solo music. So it became about how I played to determine what I played.
Free jazz and free improvisation are described perfectly in your book “Perpetual Frontier”. Why did you want to write a book on the improvisation?
I felt there has never been an adequate description of free jazz and free improvisation. Always those books that claimed to do that were histories or philosophies. It was as if it wasn’t possible to explain this music. To me, that was a failure that could be corrected. I started teaching in the 1990’s. I was hired based on my ability to explain these forms in language that was understandable. Since 2000 I have taught this material at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Over that period of time I developed the ideas presented in the book. In practical terms I wrote the book so I could record all of my ideas in it and use it for my classes. In artistic terms I wrote it to honor the music and the work made by all of us who make it.
You use both the electric and the acoustic guitar. How do you choose them for your projects?
I think mainly I choose them based on volume. I’m very particular about what an electric guitar is and what is amplified guitar and what is processed electric guitar. So the volume of each situation has to be considered by me in order to know how to approach it. I think playing through an amp is so completely different than playing acoustically, that I really have to think about what the group configuration requires, what do I expect to play etc. But from the point of view of timbre the acoustic just allows more. Think we either play the guitar or we play the guitar and amp or the guitar with the amp and with pedals. Each one is a pretty different instrument—at least they are to me.
How do you proceed when you’re composing?
I usually start by letting my instincts guide me to some melodic material, which I then either sing into a recorder or write down, depending on whether I’m in my car or someplace where I can write it down. Then I develop it further with playing or in many cases now with more writing. These days I have much less interest in composing and I rely more on improvisation and the configuration of my ensembles as the formal material I use. I trust my ability to adjust what I play from one situation to another, through the use of technique and what I call “the properties of free music”—the parts that affect the pulse, the structure of the music whether it is melodic harmonic or timbral, the form, as well as the bits that are presented by the other players. This approach allows me to make many different kinds of performance with very little or no composed material at all—and still arrive a the kind of unique result that a composition might provide. And so my sense of composition really does include the idea that having nothing written down may be the best way to achieve a very strong and distinct musical idea.
Can you talk about your gear?
For many years my only guitar was my Les Paul custom. I still play it but mostly for the louder things I do. I have a few fairly inexpensive archtops and Eastman ar-810, a Ibanez af-120 and a Washburn j6, and a Washburn Hb-35 which is a semi-hollow body like a 335. I say they are inexpensive because I travel with them and so it is not safe to travel with a great old Gibson L5 or L7. I need instruments that I can afford to lose. Fortunately so far I haven’t lost anything. I change the pickups on some of my guitars. I like all of these instruments and once I get them setup in the way I like them I think they are as good as anything else. I have a 1974 Fender Deluxe silverface with an EV speaker. A Marshall JCM 2-12” combo 100 watt, for loud gigs and to amplify my Eastman on some gigs I use a Roland AC-60. I
“Mess Hall” the last piece of my Big Loud Electric guitar Trilogy, with Steve Lantner on keyboard and Jerome Deupree on drums. A new quartet featuring Jim Hobbs on alto and two amazing very young musicians Pat Kuehn on bass and Nick Neuburg on drums I am restarting my quartet from the 1990’s with Mat Maneri, Chris Lightcap and Gerald Cleaver. We record later this summer.
Thank you very much!