Courtesy of Joe Morris
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH JOE MORRIS
The fact that someone has been influenced by Archie Shepp and John Coltrane
is nothing new. But the fact that that someone in question is a guitar
player is unique and that is Joe Morris, unique. He is in a league of
his own as far as I am concerned when approaching the guitar. And that
makes me a lifer in his fan club. Perhaps you will be, if you are not
already, when you get a glimpse of his own thoughts, unedited and in his
JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
MORRIS: At first I learned to play Beatles songs and then I learned to
play the blues and then I got into Hendrix and then I decided that I would
try to be more of a guitar player and learn about music and that was around
the time that I heard about Miles Davis and Coltrane and Mingus and Monk.
I heard one album called New Thing At Newport, which has some Archie Shepp
stuff on it and a great Coltrane piece called "One Down, One Up." That
was pretty much enough material for me to decide what direction to take.
That was about 1972. I was sixteen or seventeen and I've just been working
on it ever since.
What struck you about New Thing At Newport?
MORRIS: Well, it was the energy. It is the incredible depth and the energy
and the articulation and the emotion, but also the Archie Shepp music
on the other side of the record was very complicated and unpredictable.
It seemed like if I could play like that, I could deliver those kinds
of messages that I was getting from that music. It seemed very deep, very
controlled, very artistic, and that is what I wanted to do. At the time,
a lot of guitar players my age were trying to get more serious about playing
the guitar because of John McLaughlin and the fusion thing. I kind of
jumped off of that as fast as I could. It seemed like it was a dead end.
I don't want to point out the obvious, but Shepp and Trane are horn players.
MORRIS: Yeah, but the thing is Fred, all they are doing is playing the
language of the music. I really had the feeling at the time and I still
have quite a bit of the feeling that that's a very fluent expression of
a common language that people were trying to speak and guitar players
had maybe not had applied themselves enough to attempting to be that fluent
and that was really the goal. That is what I have been trying to do. I
could identify those as kind of dialects and speaking a particular kind
of language and since then, I have uncovered a lot of dialect possibilities
and I have tried to apply myself to them. That is really how I developed
my technique and how I think about playing them, trying to tell a story
in as broad reaching a way as possible.
Conventional wisdom relegates guitarists as sidemen.
MORRIS: A lot of other people in the music think that way and I am glad
they do because that immediately puts me in a different position. It puts
me at odds with an awful lot of the stuff and because I am never anybody
who wants to get with the status quo, I have the added benefit of playing
the instrument that nobody likes (laughing). Jazz players think it sounds
like a radio. The saxophone players treat it like that. The drummers,
as soon as you play loud, they want to play louder than you. It's a really
modern instrument, in the sense that the deepest part of the language
of it is very hard to bring out of it and at the same time, more things
can come out of it than can come out of the other instruments because
the other instruments have been successfully doing that for a long time.
I like it. It is kind of like an unruly thing in a lot of ways. It is
a block of wood with strings, plugged into a radio. It is not a very delicate
instrument and it is hard to bring out any kind of subtlety in it. It
is easy to make it big and loud and raucous and intense. I know piano
players that want to be like that and I can plug that in, turn it up to
eleven, and blast everybody out of the building, but to make it subtle,
to make it deep, to make it old, it is very hard to do. It is a really
great challenge and it is unrestricted. There is no tradition that I have
to follow. The tradition for me is about invention. I don't have to worry
that everything's been done and I have to abide by something. I don't
have to have anything to do with that. I'm lucky.
Sounds like you're a rebel.
MORRIS: Yeah, not with a big "R," because I like to keep a low profile.
I think of myself as kind of like a perennial hipster. I don't like to
piss people off, but I seem to manage to do that just the same. I know
the stuff I do is considered conservative by some people who consider
themselves pretty radical. I see an awful lot of things being done that
have already been done. I think that precision is always something that
helps you to change things. You have to apply a lot of technique, and
a lot of logic, and a lot of thought, and you have to keep changing. You
have to do all of these things to make this music interesting. I think
that jumping onto whatever trend is going on and demanding everyone around
me believe it is just a waste of time. I don't want to do that. I'm in
this because this is my life's work and I am creating a body of work.
I don't have any desire to be trendy. I guess I don't have any desire
to be popular, which is probably stupid, but I don't know how to do it
and so I just do my work and hope that people will like it.
Jumping on the latest bandwagon rather than being a lone reed would be
MORRIS: Yeah, but what do you do? What do you play? I see that my job
is to bring out something else on the guitar and nobody told me what my
job description is, but the one that I sort of deciphered from my interests
meant that I would do what I am doing. It hasn't been easy, but I am satisfied
that I haven't done anything that's easy and so there is no end in sight
for it creatively. I'm not done. I haven't made what I'm playing run its
course already. I haven't made all the parameters about it so tight that
it is ever going to end. My music has changed about five times this year
with my various activities that aren't even documented yet. I don't see
any end to what I'm doing, so that is part of the process. I guess it
is kind of a design. I don't want to be a careerist. I don't want to find
the thing that is going to get me over. That's cheap. I'm old school in
that regard. I'm old school. I'm from the Seventies, when people were
really trying to be artistic. Everything was around then. I'm not trying
to turn this into some kind of product. I equate it more to being a poet
than to being in show business. I think if you are a poet, you want everybody
to read your book and you want everybody to think that what you're saying
touches them, but you can't get your own TV show doing it. And you are
an idiot if you think you are going to.
Standard bearing traditionalists are going to resist that kind of unrestricted
MORRIS: I think there is resistance in the new music circles as much as
there are in traditional circles. I know there are people in the new music
scene or what people call the avant-garde or free jazz scene, who you
would think would love me, who don't. You would think that they would
be totally into it and a lot of them are by association, but I think some
of them think that I am not wild enough. Frequently, people think I am
not wild enough and everybody else thinks I am too wild. I think I have
a lot of structure and a lot of detail in what I'm doing and if people
listen to it, anybody listens to it, they listen to the contours, the
shapes, the phrases, the harmony, the melody, the rhythm, the technique,
and the presentation, then they would find something rewarding. It doesn't
matter where they come from. You don't have to only like Cecil Taylor
and Matt Shipp and Peter Brotzmann to like me. I'm probably more into
Monk and Eric Dolphy and stuff like that than I am into anything. I think
my music is more about that, but that is an innovative way of thinking.
I piss off people who make their jobs pissing people off.
You sure are pissing off a lot of people.
MORRIS: That's where I guess I want to be.
Do you think the term "avant-garde" is creditable?
MORRIS: No, I like what David Murray said about it. He said that it sounds
like you killed somebody. I don't like it at all. I think jazz is a good
term because jazz to me means that you are always trying to do something
new and you're not doing it to be successful. You're playing music that
is from an artistic point of view, with rhythm and melody. You're not
trying to speak over everybody's head. You're trying to speak to their
heart. It's kind of a rarified soul music. I think that says everything
that needs to be said about it. It is totally inclusive and the possibilities
are endless with that in mind. It is not high art classical music. It's
not low rent, idiot music. It is a refined kind of way of touching people.
You get to intensify your knowledge and skill and your understanding about
everything from being involved and the discipline of doing it, but it
is unlimited and once it starts to get limited by being called one thing
or the other, then it is trendy and I'm not into that.
You are open to more skepticism because you are a self-taught musician.
MORRIS: When I would have been old enough to go to college and actually
study with somebody, I was really felt like I knew what I wanted to do
and I didn't hear anyone else who was doing it and so I couldn't figure
out how anybody could teach me to do it, except maybe saxophone players.
If you were a guitar player, you weren't supposed to go and study with
a saxophone player, so I didn't do it. But at the same time, I think I
would have had more skills and I would have had more professional opportunities
if I had just held my nose and gone through all the lessons and done my
own stuff on the side. I didn't feel strong enough to do that. When you
are young, you think you will be able to everything the way you want and
one day, you turn around and you're not so young anymore and you're still
starting. I teach and I tend to tell students that I can give them whatever
they want to know, but if they have any reason to play, they're going
to take it and apply it to their own ideas. I don't tell people what to
do. I figure that they have their idea and what they need is information
to help them flush it out. I teach, but I am self-taught. I think it has
probably taken me longer, but I haven't done things that I didn't care
about because I am self-taught.
Let's touch on your recording with the DKV Trio on Okka Disk.
MORRIS: You know, Fred, it was fun and it was hard because they shift
gears a lot. Hamid is a very funky drummer and I have to say that the
impression I got was they wanted me to play more intensely than we ended
up playing, but we all sort of followed these signals that were being
put out by each other and we ended up doing what we did. It was a very
shifting kind of thing and it was pretty challenging. It was hard to know
where to go, but I like the results because I think it is different than
what they are known for. It is a little bit more bluesy. It is a little
bit more simple and in a way, straight ahead. I like that. I play well
in that kind of environment. I think I can be more inventive in that kind
of environment than just sort of going out and playing energy music, which
is really hard to do on the guitar. I like where it went, but it went
there with these immediate kind of flashpoint signals. It was a really
natural kind of thing.
And the record, Underthru, on Omnitone with Gerald Cleaver, Mat Maneri,
and Chris Lightcap?
MORRIS: Actually, that tune, "Underthru," is a tune that I wrote in 1982
and I kind of rearranged it for the quartet because I have made four record
with Mat Maneri in quartet situation. The idea is to bring out different
things in the band. Underthru ended up being this kind of down, sort of
swinging record because that is where the band was. I had some material
and I brought it in and that seemed to work and we ended up doing that.
I put together the record with the intention that it would be different
than the previous one and it was a lot more different than I thought it
would be. I liked it a lot. I think a lot of people liked it. I have a
feeling that in a way that record has unexpectedly triggered a trend in
New York. I felt I am kind of past that at this point because I have made
another quartet record. I loved that record. It is one of those things
that I have done that I think anybody can like. There is nothing threatening
about any part of it.
And the At the Old Office record on the Knitting Factory label with the
same before mentioned quartet?
MORRIS: Again, that is another example of where the band was. We started
doing some things during a couple of tours. We were doing a lot of free
improvisation that didn't sound like other free improvisation. I think
in a way, it put some people off. I read a couple of reviews and one of
them said that they were glad that they weren't at the gig because it
was so untogether. In the realm of free improvisation, that stands on
its own and I think that there is a beautiful continuity of how we play
together. For someone who doesn't know the changes that have occurred
in that band and the things that we have all done individually, they might
not recognize that, which is true in a lot of the criticism that goes
on in jazz. You can tell that they throw the record on and they listen
to two minutes of it. They have not idea of what you did before and they
have no background for any of this and they write something about it.
I just figure that they are not worth even paying attention to. It was
a different thing than Underthru. There is about forty minutes of totally
improvised music on that and a couple of tunes and it is how we were playing
live. It is a really good document of how we were playing live. It is
down and kind of turbulent, kind of swing.
And lastly, the AUM Fidelity record, Soul Search with Mat Maneri.
MORRIS: Again, Mat Maneri and I, I have a couple of relationships with
people that are controlled by total mind reading and Mat is one of them.
He and I just went to his studio. He had a studio in his house when he
lived up here and recorded some stuff. It is really how we play together.
We have a real singular understanding of where to go and how to follow
each other based on these unspoken signals that just happen. We don't
try to play free improvisation in a way that sounds like we are trying
to play free improvisation. We try to just make language. We try to have
things we can play off of. We are not using Derek Bailey and some violinist
as a model to be modern. We are just using ourselves. We are just trusting
ourselves. In doing that, it ends up sounding original.
Based on just the recordings we have mentioned, your quartet and duo settings
are not your conventional guitar situations. Why do you shy away from
the traditional guitar trio or quartet dates?
MORRIS: Well, I have the idea that whatever that has happened in jazz
was invented by somebody and then people interpreted it for a hundred
years. As it gets more and more interpreted, it goes worse and worse and
worse and less and less important. This music is crowded by people who
are seventy-five times removed from the original source. I try to be original.
I'm just trying to be myself as somebody who has to generate activity
based on my understanding of the history of this music and modern times.
Who am I playing with? What can we do? What is our objective? How do we
think we can do something that will surprise listeners? So I'm not going
to follow any patterns or routines because in its original conception
there is no such thing. People can say that you are a guitar player and
you are supposed to play like this. Based on whose rule? That is a rule
made up by people who studied somebody who invented something. I'm trying
to be somebody who invents something in my life. I just want to invent
something and I'd like to surprise people who are listening and make music
that is about now, not 1968, or 1978, or '88. There is always interpretive
stuff going on and that is fine and dandy, but I don't want to have anything
to do with it. I prefer to make something that hasn't happened. But I
also do a lot of things because when I came up in the Seventies, there
was so much going on. The European guys and Coltrane's people were still
out working and Ornette was really thriving, Braxton and the AACM, Black
Artists Group, the guys from Oakland, the guys from England, Italy, Brotzmann,
all those guys were doing all these things, John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne.
I lived in New Haven, where Gerry Hemingway and George Lewis and Leo Smith
and all those guys were. All those things set technical criteria, technical
demands of everybody and I think to do one thing or two things is not
dealing with the whole of the music. I think that the whole of the music
is huge. You have to try and speak about many different things in your
own voice. That is what I am trying to do. I think it confuses people.
Somebody says, "Well, he is good when he plays in a trio, but he is not
good when he does this other stuff." I think, "I'm sick of doing trios.
Let me do this." I figure that if I can confuse people enough just by
being honest then at least I am being creative. I'm not contriving anything
and thinking that this will work or that will work. I'm doing what I think
is another part of the functional use of this music.
As a product of the Seventies, was disco a good thing?
MORRIS: Yeah, I like disco a lot. My daughter is eight and she loves disco.
I've always liked disco. I love rhythm and blues in all its manifestations.
I like pop music a lot. I'm no snob. I like to know what things are. I
know what everything is. My daughter listens to Britney Spears everyday.
I listen to it with her. I want to know what it is and how it fits into
the time we live in. That is what music does. It marks time. It only exists
in time. You listen to it. You look around. You have a different sense
of yourself and pop music serves its function. The only thing I don't
like is pretentiousness. I could never stand heavy metal, spandex guys
acting like they were these big high artists (laughing). That made me
insane. I can't take that. I've heard everything. I'm not a snob about
And the future?
MORRIS: I am really concentrating on Boston again. I think my trio is
going to record a record for Mat Maneri's label, which I think is unnamed
yet. Joe and Mat Maneri and I have a record coming out on Hat Hut, recorded
live in Cologne in 1995. That is coming out next year. I'm working on
a solo record. I am focusing my attention on Boston because it is full
of all these really strong musicians now-a-days. I haven't made a recording
since November. We will see what happens.
Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and the itch in the back of your
throat. Comments? Email