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Joe Morris Gets Around

By Ed Hazell

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Has any other improviser had a year comparable to that of guitarist Joe Morris? It's doubtful. The Boston-area veteran has no fewer than five new CDs on the racks at present, including Invisible Weave (No More) a duet with bassist William Parker; String (Leo), a duet with Ivo Perelman (playing cello, not his usual saxophone); and Antennae (Aum Fidelity), a new trio release. And this Wednesday Morris will celebrate the release of two other albums -- You Be Me (Soul Note), by his quartet featuring violinist Matt Maneri, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Curt Newton; and Thesis (Hatology), a breathtaking duet with pianist Matt Shipp -- with a show at MIT's Killian Hall.

For my money, Joe Morris is the most exciting guitarist working in the jazz tradition. Without any effects boxes or delays -- just flesh against wire -- he creates music of great power and subtle nuance. He's translated the steely, no-nonsense intensity of the great blues guitarists into a new-music setting that swings. No other guitarist places notes in relationship to a beat as Morris does, or uses dynamics to create a pulsing sensation in lines in quite the same way. Morris accelerates and decelerates against the prevailing tempo to create a unique sense of elastic tension. He traces erratic, unpredictable melodic contours full of breaks and discontinuities that are as revelatory as the sudden insightful connections he makes between seemingly disparate phrases. In a Morris solo, chains of short, tightly packed, invitingly rounded phrases erupt with startling force into nasty spikes of agitated, wide intervals.

But for all his volatility, Morris never loses track of a performance's overall shape. That's thanks in part to his compositions: he excels at structures that both guide and liberate musicians. The several sections of "You Be Me" not only provide a narrative framework for the soloists but also help drummer Curt Newton and bassist Nate McBride shape the underpinnings of the music and unify the entire performance. "Deep Discount" allows for duets between Maneri and McBride, and between Morris and Newton, that afford the piece an uncluttered yet varied flow.

It's the conversational give-and-take within the group that makes You Be Me such a satisfying experience. On the collectively developed "Real Reason," the instrumental colors bleed into one another with deceptive ease. The band proceed in parallel voicings -- or else the jagged, broken lines fit together like a puzzle whose pieces are continually changing shape. This is a group with flexible interconnections that stretch and bend but never break. They hold most tightly together at precisely those moments it seems they must fly apart. This sense of communion comes from more than craft; its origins lie in a fundamental spirituality at the heart of music in the African-American tradition.

Morris and pianist Matthew Shipp establish a similarly deep level of communication from the opening seconds of Thesis. On Morris's 1996 quartet release, Elsewhere (Homestead), they displayed the same exhilarating willingness to take risks and challenge each other. On Thesis, the pair seem guided not by conscious design but by more mysterious and powerful forces. Which isn't to say there's not a high level of conscious artistry present in this darkly beautiful, even majestic, album. Once again, Morris's unique rhythmic and dynamic inflections create an instantly identifiable sound. Shipp's expansive vocabulary embraces classical elements as well as jazz, and the rhythmic precision of his playing also points to new ways to swing the music. But what sets this performance apart is the daring, headlong way they throw themselves on the moment. An uncanny intuitive link -- built on mutual trust, faith in a higher power, reckless abandon, who knows? -- seems to tether them together even on furiously energetic tracks like "Thesis," "The Wand," and "Simple Relations." Shipp's recent series of duet recordings has paired him with bassist William Parker and saxophonists Rob Brown and Roscoe Mitchell, but this meeting with Morris may be the best so far.

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