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Deciphering the Sonic Puzzles in Music: Behind the Methodologies of Avant Guitarist Joe Morris

photo by Dawid Laskowski

My own lineage of jazz guitar growing up in Milwaukee during the '60s and '70s went something like this: Charlie Christian to Herb Ellis/Barney Kessel/Kenny Burrell to Joe Pass/Tal Farlow/Jim Hall to Wes Montgomery/Pat Martino/George Benson...and then on to the fusion cats (John McLaughlin, John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Terje Rypdal, Bill Connors, Al Di Meola, Allan Holdsworth, et al). What I had missed in my upbringing was so-called avant garde guitar, which I got a full dose of upcoming moving to New York City in 1980. Once there, renegade players like Elliott Sharp, Derek Bailey, Fred Frith and Marc Ribot really opened my eyes to a totally 'other' way of approaching the instrument. James "Blood" Ulmer was also huge one for me, particularly his string of earth-shattering releases for Columbia Records in the early '80s -- 1981's Free Lancing, 1982's Black Rock, 1983's Odyssey. Ulmer's brand of harmolodics and unison tuning, combined with an inherent sense of funk and blues that fellow guitarist Vernon Reid would later frame in a trio of recordings he produced in the 2000s -- 2001's Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, 2003's No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions and 2007's Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions -- was completely revolutionary to my ears.

By the late '80s, when I first started hearing guitarist Joe Morris on the NYC scene, he first struck me as somewhat beholden to Ulmer's harmolodic approach to the instrument. But as I continued checking him out -- at old Knitting Factory on Houston Street with his Sweatshop Trio (electric bassist Sebastian Steinberg, drummer Jerome Deupree) or in other situations at underground venues like Chandelier or 8BC in the East Village or Inroads Theater in Soho and later at places like Tonic and The Stone -- I came to appreciate his deliberate attack, unflinching commitment and inexhaustible supply of ideas. And I also found myself coveting his black Les Paul Custom guitar.

A remarkably prolific artist with over 150 recordings to his credit for such renegade labels as AUM Fidelity, Soul Note, HatHut, Leo, Knitting Factory Works, Clean Feed, ESP, Glacial Erratic, Rarenoise, NotTwo, Thirsty Ear, Relative Pitch, RogueArt and his own Riti Records, Joe Morris has been called “the preeminent free music guitarist of his generation” by Downbeat, while The Wire proclaimed him “one of the most profound improvisers at work in the U.S.” But it his commitment to spreading the word about improvised music over the past three decades — to his students as an educator/mentor and to the general public as event organizer and concert producer/curator — that prompted me to recently recommend Morris for a Jazz Hero Award, nominated annually by Jazz Journalists Association to advocates who have had significant impact in their local communities.

Specially, if was Joe's curating of the monthly "Improvisations Now" series at Real Art Ways in Hartford that hipped me to his extra-musical activities. And even though he does participate as a player in those regular Sunday afternoon concerts at RAW, playing either guitar or bass along with invited guest artists, the act of bringing in such prominent voices in creative (aka avant garde) music as trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, saxophonists Ken Vandermark, Matana Roberts, Joe McPhee, James Brandon Lewis and Ingrid Laubrock, drummers Tyshawn Sorey and Michael Wimberley, pianists Matthew Shipp and Angelica Sanchez, multi-instrumentalist Danier Carter, and guitarist Mary Halvorson is a boon to Hartford's cultural lifeline. Curating the adventurous "Improvisations Now" series at RAW is Morris' way of passing on the spirit of free improvisation that first touched him nearly 50 years ago.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut on Sept. 13, 1955, the self-taught and completely self-directed musician moved to Boston in 1975 and began working there as an organizer and producer/curator in 1976, starting the music program at Charlie’s Tap in Cambridge and also organizing the Jazz Now Festival at Tufts University. He formed his first trio in 1977 and later co-founded the Boston Improvisers Group (BIG). Citing Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Derek Bailey, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, John McLaughlin, Pete Cosey, Derek Bailey and Lowell Davidson as major influences, Morris began developing his own singular vocabulary on the guitar, which eminent critic Gary Giddins once summed up in a Village Voice review: “If Ornette Coleman were Jim Hall, he would be Joe Morris.”

After moving to New York City in 1985, Morris became an active participant on the NYC Free Jazz scene, performing at such alternative venues as Chandelier, Visiones, Inroads, Greenwich House and the original Knitting Factory on Houston Street. In 1989, he returned to Boston where he lived until 2001. In 2000, he began playing upright bass along with guitar and the following year returned to his hometown, New Haven, where he created the Just Play series in 2003, curated the premiere season at Firehouse 12 in 2005, and founded and co-curated the Multiplex series at The State House in 2019. Marris has taught at New England Conservatory for the past 23 years.

Joe, I'm nominating you for Jazz Hero Award because what you are doing at Real Art Ways with the "Improvisations Now" series is great community outreach, an admirable service you're providing for open-minded music lovers. Plus, on a personal level, you're saving me bus fare and a two-hour trip to NYC to seek out this kind of adventurous music there.

Well, I appreciate having that be noticed, because it is important. I mean, I think of myself as an artist playing gigs with people that I want to play with. So I'm a little ambivalent about taking the place of somebody who's sort of doing a service in that regard because I'm not really different being there than I am going anywhere else to do a gig. But there's a number of people involved in that series happening. I'm the one that organizes the music. I don't even like the word curate. I'm just a musician organizing bands to play on this series. But the fact is, (Real Art Ways Executive Director) Will Wilkins and I, along with my anonymous benefactor who donated money to Real Art Ways, and Stephen Haynes, who's done some promotion, make it happen. And the audience really collectively deserves some credit for making that series happen as well as it has. So I'm a little torn in that I'm an artist and I'm already benefitting from playing the music. So I guess I'd like to frame it that it is a community thing, that there's a bunch of people involved in that series happening, and I'm lucky to be kind of get to get to play in it and be the center of attention for it.

Well, Will Wilkins may have provided the vehicle, but you're filling in the content. And you're choosing this particular type of music, which is not readily available. You often have to seek it out, even in New York. But you're bringing it to the Hartford community in this ongoing series. And I think that's commendable.

Yeah, well, that's good to hear. In a way, what I'm doing with the "Improvisations Now" series at Real Art Ways is a big version of what I always do, which is a very kind of non-linear organization of collaborations. There is a point artistically that I'm trying to make in that series. It's not just organizing concerts for everybody. I'm making a point about a) what I can do as an improviser and b) the fact that improvisation is logical. I am making that point in a lot of ways because the music, no matter who I put together, works. And it's always interesting.

You began bringing this kind of music in to Real Art Ways several years ago.

Yes, (improvising trumpeter) Stephen Haynes and I started that series in 2012. We both played on it and we had people like Evan Parker, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver and others come in to play. So the foundation of the current series is based on that. It all really started with me and Stephen trying to find a way to play here without having to go to New York, so it was a way for us to play locally. And both of us always organized locally. I had organized things in Boston starting in the early '80s. You know, I've always done it. I moved to New York in the mid '80s and organized some things there. Those were more self-produced concerts. And then I moved back to Boston and organized more. When I moved back to New Haven, I began organizing right away. So I'm always producing things and programing and finding ways to do things. But yes, Stephen and I connected to do a thing at Real Art Ways and in the first two years we funded it out of our pockets and off of the audience. And then in the last three years, Will Wilkins gave us money for every concert. We did eight or nine concerts a year. And we had all kinds of people play with us over five years. So that series that Stephen and I did ended in 2017, then two years ago Will called me and asked if I wanted to do a series of my own and said that he would raise money for it. One of the objectives that he had was that we use the money to bring in people who are well-enough known to draw an audience. During the pandemic they had no one going to Real Art Ways, which is detrimental to their funding, obviously. So when he did come up with some money for the "Improvisations Now" series, he said, "Please spend it to bring in people who will draw." You know, obviously, if you have people who are famous and great musicians coming in, you're probably going to get an audience. And I happen to be friends with all the people I play with on this series, so I just called them. I got Tyshawn Sorey, Mary Halvorson, Tomeka Reid, Ken Vandermark, Matana Roberts, Wadada and everybody else who's been there. It's not huge money for them, but it's good money. And because they trust me and they know the music is going to be good, they've all said yes. Also, Will Wilkins has also been helpful in making sure that we engage with the audience in a way that was personal to keep them coming. And so that audience has grown from when Stephen and I started in 2012.

I like how before every concert you address the audience and encourage them to engage in "creative listening." And this is part of why you're doing this "Improvisations Now" series. It's not just a chance for you to play music with your colleagues, it's a chance to really reach out to this community and promulgate this music. Why do you think it's important to do that?

Thank you for saying that. Because I think...when I say to the audience before these concerts, "Please engage in creative listening," my idea is that this kind of music creates a kind of sonic puzzle and that the pleasure comes from deciphering the puzzle. I don't think there's one answer to it. I like music that doesn't offer the same answer. It's a point of reflection that you get from listening to this music. I think that's the reward from it. If we start telling everybody what they should think, then we cancel the meaning of it. I go on the idea that when things are new, they're not understood except by the people who experience them. There's no bebop without somebody being in the audience. Nothing happens without people in the audience having an idea about what it is. So having an audience that's invited to draw their own conclusions means that the music can be new and different every time we make it. And that's what I'm trying to do with the series.

Through your playing, your organizing and your teaching, you are spreading the word about music and improvisation. And that's why you're a Jazz Hero.

I guess so. Well, you know, the thing is, it's all the same, it's all part of a continuum. When I was hanging out with Wadada that day we played duets together at Real Art Ways, I reminded him that I first heard him in 1973 in New Haven, performing with some local musicians. Maybe they were from Wesleyan University, I don't know, but they weren't world famous musicians. I left New Haven in '75 but Wadada stuck around and then they organized things around him, like the Connecticut Improvisers Collective. I went to Boston and did the same thing. I organized immediately. I started a bookstore and had a temporarily run thing called the Boston Improvisers Group. So I really believe that the collective configuration of things in this kind of music is the best way to make things happen, because otherwise you have to rely on someone else to do it. They might, they might not. But if you get your own thing going, it doesn't prevent you from interacting with other people who organize. So this self-directed thing is part of the art form.

And that's also an important lesson that you're imparting on your proteges, to go out into the world and start their own scenes.

Absolutely. Absolutely. And they're doing it. I mean, there's former students of mine in Philadelphia, in Chicago, in Boston, in New York who are all organizing things, running things. Brandon Lopez was my student, Jamie Branch was my student, Kevin Murray and Aaron Rubinstein and Dan Blacksburg were my students, and when they said to me, "What can I do? How do I get a gig?" I told them, "Go organize it." And they were smart enough to take that little bit of information and go and do something with it.

So you're planting seeds.

Yeah. Again, I think that's part of the gig. You have to build community, you have to help allow people to have their own experience. You have to let them succeed and fail on their own terms, either as a musician or as a listener. And there's a lot of chance going on in this thing. What you want to do is let that flow while you sort of apply it with precision.

I understand you grew up in New Haven. Did you know (pianist) Jamie Saft then?

No, he's much younger than me. He spent a lot of time in New Haven because he went to the Hopkins School (a private college-prep high school in New Haven). I met him in Boston when he was playing with Curt Newton, who was also the drummer in my trio at the time. Jamie and I did a recording in 1992 and I remember him telling me then, "I'm going to New York and I'm going to play with John Zorn." And I said, "Okay, man. Do it!" I was hoping he wouldn't go because we were doing some great stuff in Boston. But he went and the rest is history. (Saft became a member of Zorn's acclaimed groups Electric Masada and The Dreamers and has recorded over 20 albums with the maestro to date). Then we ran into each other, actually on social media, about ten years ago. And we've been super tight ever since. In fact, I was chatting with him this morning. So there's a certain kind of Connecticut connection there. But I didn't know him until Boston.

Jamie told me the other day, after your Sunday afternoon gig at RAW with Daniel Carter and Michael Wemberly, that his pot salesman worked at Sally's Pizza in New Haven. That's where he used to get his weed.

How convenient!

It's one-stop shopping. I know that Mary Halvorson was also a student of yours. Was that privately or were you affiliated with Wesleyan, where she went to school?

No, Mary took private lessons with me. Mary walked up to me one night in 2000 at Tonic and asked me if she could take lessons. I was still living in Boston so she came to my house a few times there for lessons, and then when I moved down here to New Haven in 2001 she took over a year of lessons with me, like, every couple of weeks. It was pretty serious work. I played with her on her senior recital at Wesleyan. We played a duo.

So we've been close ever since then. A lot of the people that I mentioned, I know from New England Conservatory, where I've taught for 23 years now. There's a couple of private students of mine from the New School, where I'm about to teach a class in April. I also taught at Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge and I taught at the University of Calgary for a semester. I've been teaching a lot for the last 23 years. And I teach this kind of music at New England Conservatory. I have a very precise curriculum where my students play Braxton and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy and Derek Bailey and Evan Parker and all those things. And so they really learn a lot about what people call Free Improvisation. I teach in a very precise way using the artists' explanations.

Is any part of your teaching process done away from the instrument, off the fretboard, so to speak, in terms of getting students to free themselves up mentally to approach the music?

I don't think that's necessarily that effective. What I do is I use Unit Structures, Tri-Axium Theory, Harmolodics and European Free Improvisation. In other words, I use existing methodologies as the example of how to have an improvisational methodology. I think one of the reasons that the sort of thing you're talking about isn't taught very often in school is that when it has been taught, it's been like, "Come on, just free up and improvise!" And I still hear that. "Just improvise!" Well, what do you get when you just improvise? Is that going to be as productive as the combination of those four methodologies that I considered to be seminal methodologies? I mean, when you play free jazz, people play like Cecil Taylor, they play like late free modal Coltrane, they play like Anthony Braxton, they play like Derek Bailey. It's not as if they're not doing their own thing, but without those things existing, there's not that much of a place to start, even if they just learned it ten generations away from the source. So if you give them the source, then they have endless amounts of information, especially if they combine it with whatever else they're interested in. It's very organized, the way I teach. All of it is synthesized, all of it is interpreted in order to get some degree of invention. I wrote a book about it called Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music. So I use a very logical methodology to explain methodology. And this is what I've been doing for the last 25 years, without being noticed for it very much. But the students noticed it, and it's effective.

Who did you study with?

Nobody. I'm self-taught, except for about four guitar lessons with Tony Lombardozzi, who's a guitarist who still teaches at Wesleyan and who was also Mary Halvorson's teacher at Wesleyan. Tony was a student of Sal Salvador at the University of Bridgeport. He was a good teacher for me. He got me to understand a lot of stuff that I moved on with. But the thing about it was that I wanted to do this kind of music that I'm doing now, and who was going to teach me? There was no one to teach me that stuff. And you could say that about anybody else my age who was trying to figure it out. There was no one to teach us anything about this. So I just did the work on my own. And I played with a lot of people that I relate to in this. I had some gigs with Dewey Redman, I played once with Cecil Taylor, I got to know Jimmy Lyons, who heard me play and was kind about it. I played with Derek Bailey, I played with Evan Parker and Barry Guy. I recorded a four CD duo record with Anthony Braxton (2007's Four Improvisations on Clean Feed) and performed with him. So I know a lot about this stuff. Braxton sent me a packet of his pieces. I also have every Ornette Coleman tune, every Albert Ayler tune, tons of Eric Dolphy, Julius Hemphill, Henry Threadgill, all that stuff. So my students learn the whole thing. I don't tell them that there's a right way to do it. I go here, "Here's what people have done." Just like if you're studying visual arts, no one says, "This is the right way to paint." It's too complicated. So you give them what people have done. I don't explain Cecil Taylor on my terms, I let him explain him on his terms. And what I find is that everybody's able to one rehearsal people can play music that is Unit Structures, that is Harmodolics, that is Tri-Axium Theory, and that is European Free Improvisation, all separated and also all together. And from that they're getting new things, because you just can't make up something that is that big. You might invent part of it and maybe if you work really hard, you'll invent something else. And I feel like that is my methodology now, the properties of free music. But I worked on it for years to be able to say that, to say that I have an operational methodology for my music. And in a way, the Hartford series is a manifestation of that, that I stand up there with people with no rehearsal, usually no conversation. And by understanding what they're doing, we're able to play together, including Wadada Leo Smith. I mean, I had never played a duo with Wadada but I know what Wadada is going to do. Because that's what I do. I understand the methodology of certain musicians' work. It's clear and I'm able to do that. And so I think I've changed the way people can learn it. That's one of the things that I've done.

I really enjoyed your "Improvisations Now" session with Daniel Carter. He's an old friend of mine. I used to play with him a lot in the '80s and early '90s. He's just so free and, like you say, there's never any conversation ahead of time about what you're going to do. You just hit it and let the drama unfold.

Well, you know, it's interesting because there are people who would say, "Oh, well yes, it's wonderful that you play with Wadada, but why would you play with with Daniel Carter?" And there are other also people would say, "Daniel Carter's great, but why would you play with Peter Evans?" But in fact, it's all a version of the same idea, which is making music facilitated with the use of improvisation. So it's not so much making an improvisation, there's a methodology going on there, and we're using improvisation to make the music. And every one of those people has a very distinctive way of doing it. Some, like Wadada, have written about it and talk about it. Some like Peter, who's a virtuoso of the highest regard, is off doing all kinds of different things and is still coming into his own. And Daniel prefers not to be too specific about it, which is his methodology. Matt Shipp says, "I sit at the piano and the angels speak to me." And I said, "That's your methodology." He goes, "No, it isn't." I said, "Yeah, it is, because if you don't have that, you're not going to know what to do." So it works for him. And so what I do is, I want to know what people do. And if I do, I can figure out what to do with them. And also, I can be myself with them doing a lot of different things, too, and find a way to interact. So what I'm doing with the "Improvisations Now" series is similiar to what I've done a lot of times before. I had weeks at The Stone where I was able to do that with different people and I made a million different records with all kinds of different groups of people. I just want to be a non-linear thinker and a non-linear musician. I don't want to be adhering to one narrow view of this. It's not interesting that way...less interesting than I'd like to be, anyway.

I find it very interesting that you alternate between bass and guitar on these concerts. You're interacting with the musicians on different instruments that speak very different languages.

Some part of me wishes I just played bass because it's a lot easier than playing the guitar the way I do. To find a slot that was open on the guitar and find a way to work it was exciting, and it's still exciting, But with the way I play bass I can improvise with anybody. I think I can do that on the guitar, too, but the bass is just a lot easier. And you get a lot of power playing the bass. You're really in the driver's seat. You can really screw it up, and if you do just a little bit, you can really pull it all together. It's like a rudder on a boat. You're not the boat but you have a lot of control. It's nice to be able to switch off and also to play different versions of the guitar. I think I've done that so far in this series quite a bit. Playing with Fay Victor is different than playing with Peter Evans. And playing with Wadada is different than playing with anybody. To be able to do those things and have a repertoire of approaches to being an improviser has always been very important to me. I've written about it and I kind of live that.

I'm sorry that I missed your duet with Mary Halvorson. I was out of town that weekend and I was disappointed that I missed it.

It was a good one. And we made a record in 2018 that's on RogueArt called Traversing Orbits, and we've done a number of duo gigs together. Mary's the best. We're close friends. We'll be doing more. It's going to happen again.

Were you friends with microtonal master Joe Mainieri? Did you collaborate with him?

Yeah, I facilitated the making of a record on ECM called Three Men Walking in 1996. It's a classic (featuring Joe Maneri on multiple reeds, his son Mat on 6-string violin and Morris on guitar). And then on the same tour, we made a live recording for HatHut called Out Right Now. So yeah, I did things with Joe Maneri back then, quite a bit. And, of course, Mat was in my quartet for years so that meant I was going over to his house to play often. And one day he said, "Hey, Joe, wants to come down and play." And we did that. Then Steve Lake, the producer from ECM, contacted me and I sort of got it together and we booked a tour and recording in Switzerland that came out as Three Men Walking, which is in the catalog. They don't mention my name on ECM but the record is really great. Both of the trio records we did together are great, actually.

I got a chance to see Joe play a few times. He was a sweet guy and a mentor for a lot of people.

Yeah, definitely, including Jamie Saft. He worked with him quite a bit and still draws on a lot of what he learned from Joe. He taught at NBC for 35 years, so he was a big presence there.

Thanks for the chat, Joe.

My pleasure, Bill

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