On guitar, double bass and baseball - an interview with Joe Morris

Bartosz Adamczak

Joe Morris has been one of the most intriguing guitar voices in improvised music for a while now, adding bass playing to his resume a while ago as well. We have talked about his approach to the two instruments, about his musical partnerships, as well as some of his favourite recordings and concert experiences:

I find guitar playing to be burdened heavily with preconceptions of how it should sound, be it rock music influences or jazz guitar playing. How did you manage to achieve your own sound on the instrument?

I realized very early that everything played before the time I started  guitar was invented by someone like me, and that if I wanted to be like a guitarist I admired I should be myself, because they were being themselves. Therefore I work to invent rather then duplicate what has already been invented. Of course it isn't necessary or possible to invent everything, I synthesize existing material and make it behave the way I want it to. The technical language of guitar is vast, and expanding on that in a meaningful way takes a lot of work and creativity. I have no existing particular example to follow on guitar. Working all this time to hone my own use of the guitar gives me an open field, a perpetual frontier to work in. I am always trying to add new material to my guitar playing, so that the experience of playing it is the same after all these year as it was when I started—a new discovery.

In 2000s you started playing bass – were you trying to leave the guitar playing habits behind? Are the bass and guitar complementary in your mind or do you separate these and approach them differently?

I wasn't trying to leave the guitar behind, but I started playing bass at a time when I changed a lot of things in my music. I have always done a lot of different things and I was finishing a period when one part of my music had been quite successful but had also come to an end. When I set about to use some of the other parts that I had been working on  I was met with a lot of resistance from the promoters, agents, critics and label owners I had been working with. Rather than fight that I took it as a cue to do exactly anything I wanted to do and to disregard the opinions against that, which is how I had been working before those people discovered me anyway. As for the bass, I felt that I had a natural understanding of it so I decided to get one any start playing. Of course I think of it as a completely different instrument with different values and assets although sometimes I approach it using materials that I also use on guitar. I"m not sure it works for me a well as the guitar does, but I stick with it because I love playing it and I love being in the role in a group of helping to shape the music from the low end. I think I have a voice on both instruments but after all these years of playing it and struggling with it, I feel that I have a more complex and voice on guitar. Still I would hire me to play bass with me on guitar if I could work out the physics.

Your musical activity seems to favor long-term collaborations, be it in most recent years Matthew Shipp, Jamie Saft or Ivo Perelman. Especially with the latter, you had a chance to record a series sessions in a variety of contexts for Leo Records.  What kind of connection is required to sustain such collaborations over time and what are the advantages of playing within such established relation?

Some of those situations are organized by those musicians, and I enjoy working with them because they are very good at sharing the space and other parts of the collaboration. Ivo is the organizer of his recordings and he hires me. I haven't worked with Matt is years but it was similar to working with Ivo. Jamie and I have a different and more collaborative situation. We propose ideas to each other and work out the details together, then we record them and he engineers them. He is one of the best recording engineers in the world so our records always sound incredible. I think the way we play together is very intent on making some serious sound as a main aspect of the configuration of the music. I wouldn't say that my long term collaborations can always be understood by the released recordings I am on that get promoted and are maybe more easily seen in reviews etc. My record labels Riti  and  Glacial Erratic (now on bandcamp) and the labels Relative Pitch, Rogue Art, Fundacj Sluchaj are the vehicles for showing my many other close long term collaborations, with people like Agusti Fernandez, Nate Wooley, Taylor Ho Bynum, Ken Vandermark, William Parker, Hamid Drake, Mary Halvorson, Brad Barrett, Yasmine Aziaez, Stephen Haynes, Chris Cretella, Jim Hobbs, Luther Gray, Steve Lantner, Gerald Cleaver, Mat Maneri, Eric Stilwell, Ben Hall, Andria Nicodemou, Dave Parmelee, Tomas Fujiwara, Kyoko Kitamura, Tomeka Reid, Jerome Deupree, Dre Hochevor, Daniel Levin, Chris Pitsiokos, Charmaine Lee, Fay Visitor, Charles Downs, Christian Weber and Ben Stapp to name just a few. At this point the people I work with who have been my students are my core collaborators and I plan on intensifying that collaboration. These musicians understand what I am doing now and are tremendous players. Look out for many new recordings featuring this great young players.
At this point I think my main expectation from the musicians I work with is that we have a conversation. I mean that we can talk about the music, or about other things. That we share some respect for one another and for each other's ideas. That approach makes the playing easy and also daring.

Coming back to the series of recordings with Perelman, you had participated in many of the sessions, in different lineups but sometimes with very slight changes, ie the two trio sessions with Ivo and Gerald Cleaver – you play one on bass and the other on guitar. . It almost seems like a puzzle where you can take our / add any element it and it affects the whole picture. How do you feel those small changes in interactions influence the music?

Again these are Ivo's ideas. I show up and contribute my part. Seeing as it is improvised music adjusting to the smallest changes in the group or the music, knowing how to do that is essential to being a good improviser. I suppose without having that skill I wouldn't be invited to the session. Ivo is sort of composing by grouping musicians on recordings. He likes that I play more than one instrument and that I am very flexible in my abilities. That gives him a lot to work with.

You have written for a while a music blog in 2010 and one can clearly see you’re an avid listener. Since you have published a few recordings on the classic italian Soul Note label. I’m curious what are your favourite recordings from the Black Saint / Soul Note family that you feel everyone should listen to?

My favorite recordings on Black Saint/Soul Note are Joe Morris Trio: Symbolic Gesture, and Joe Morris Quartet: You Be Me.  I also like The Jimmy Lyons Andrew Cyrille Duo  Burnt Offering, Cecil Taylor: Winged Serpent, Air: Montreux Swiss, and David Murray: Ming. Jimmy Lyons, Wee Sneezawee, Bill Dixon, November 81'. More of course. Probably too many to name.

I’ve read you have you started seriously exploring jazz after hearing Coltrane’s OM and explored music further thanks to concerts at Yale campus, can you tell us a bit about concerts that made most lasting impression on you?

I saw Miles David a few times in the 70's, The Art Ensemble of Chicago at The Kitchen in New York in 1973 I think it was. Wadada Leo Smith at Battel Chapel in New Haven in 1974,  Anthony Braxton Quartet Jazz Workshop Boston 1976, Derek Bailey solo Worcester Massachusetts, 1982? Jimmy Lyon/Andrew Cyrille Worcester Massachusetts 1982? Cecil Taylor every time I saw him. I saw Air perform in NY many times, Jerome Cooper solo (I was the only unrelated audience member) Environ NY 1978, Revolutionary Ensemble Boston 1977?. So many. . Living near Wesleyan University for the past 17 years I was able to see Anthony Braxton perform with his students there many times. These concert were always mind-blowing. Peter Evan ensemble at The Stone in 2015. I was on a small festival last week in Porto Portugal and Barry Guy played solo on the first night. It was tremendous. So there are a few from way back up to last week. I am much more into what is in front of me and trying to understand it than I am concerned with what happened a long time ago. The ones al ong time ago were great but gone. Now we have new people and new ideas. Illegal Crowns at the Music Unlimited Festival in Wels Austria November 2017 was really great.

I’ve often wondered about how musicians manage their personal time – given the rigour of touring, practice, composing etc. Do you have any non-music related hobby you can dedicate your time to?

I live in the country near the ocean, so I walk in the woods with my dog nearly every day that I'm home, I kayak on the ocean in the summer and ride my bike on the country roads. I love baseball. My life requires a lot of driving and I really enjoy listening to baseball games on the car radio. I like to read and I am an avid fan of Film Noir. I've seen hundreds of Noir films. Mostly I enjoy spending time with my wife and kids.