Courtesy of Joe Morris

Leo Records

AUM Fidelity


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 own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

JOE 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.

FJ: What struck you about New Thing At Newport?

JOE 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.

FJ: I don't want to point out the obvious, but Shepp and Trane are horn players.

JOE 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.

FJ: Conventional wisdom relegates guitarists as sidemen.

JOE 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.

FJ: Sounds like you're a rebel.

JOE 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.

FJ: Jumping on the latest bandwagon rather than being a lone reed would be easier.

JOE 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.

FJ: Standard bearing traditionalists are going to resist that kind of unrestricted free-prov.

JOE 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.

FJ: You sure are pissing off a lot of people.

JOE MORRIS: That's where I guess I want to be.

FJ: Do you think the term "avant-garde" is creditable?

JOE 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.

FJ: You are open to more skepticism because you are a self-taught musician.

JOE 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.

FJ: Let's touch on your recording with the DKV Trio on Okka Disk.

JOE 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.

FJ: And the record, Underthru, on Omnitone with Gerald Cleaver, Mat Maneri, and Chris Lightcap?

JOE 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.

FJ: And the At the Old Office record on the Knitting Factory label with the same before mentioned quartet?

JOE 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.

FJ: And lastly, the AUM Fidelity record, Soul Search with Mat Maneri.

JOE 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.

FJ: 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?

JOE 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.

FJ: As a product of the Seventies, was disco a good thing?

JOE 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 music.

FJ: And the future?

JOE 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.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and the itch in the back of your throat. Comments?  Email Fred.