Spotlight: Joe Morris

Great guitarists abound. There is even a thrilling number of guitarists with their own instrumental voice. Fewer are musicians of any kind who invent their own musical language. Playing things never played before is not that difficult; playing them in a way that possesses such a strong internal logic it draws listeners to a sound they have never experienced, is a marvel. Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, and Stevie Wonder are among the few who introduced us to new ways of hearing through their explorations. Joe Morris also fits in this category. The first time I saw him play, I was struck by how his unique note and rhythm choices made immediate sense to me.

Between his many groups and a separate career as an upright bassist, Morris is one of the hardest working men in show business. His recent release Raoul, with keyboardist Jamie Saft and drummer Mike Pride, for Eraldo Bernocchi’s RareNoiseRecords, is a rampaging, electric, free improv set that in other hands might have easily devolved to pure noise, but thanks to the musicality of Morris & Co. remains engaging and involving throughout. Get a glimpse of the guitarist’s motives and objectives here.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

I don’t know if anyone can gauge proficiency on electric guitar. I mean I could play Beatles, Rolling Stones and Blues when I was 15, but I am still learning how to be proficient enough to play the ideas I have that are beyond the expectation of proficiency. However, I studied scales, 7th chords, harmony and reading so I could play jazz, mainly because that is the only real pedagogy for non-classical guitar. I guess playing jazz require one to study jazz.

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?

I think every kind of good music started as non-mainstream. I try to honor the objective of the music before me, and my own need to express myself, by doing things that are intended instead of only interpretive.

Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.

A long list of names. In particular Jimmy Lyons, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Howlin’ Wolf, Rev. Gary Davis, Smokey Robinson, Rene Thomas, Don Cherry, Anthony Braxton, Django Reinhardt, Charles Ives, Herbie Nichols, Duke Ellington, Monk, Alhaji Bai Konte, Gnawa music, my uncle, Johnny Morris, who was a drummer in NY in the 20’s. I love Barry Guy’s work, Agusti Fernandez, Peter Evans, Nate Wooley, William Parker, and many more.

How did you get better at your current style?

I don’t use the term style, because that assumes that there is a standard and that originality is a version of it. I think there is originality and then there is interpretation. The way I get better at what I do is to examine my artistic objectives, develop the technical material needed to express that, and then do all I can to master that material and use it in performance.

What are you trying convey with your music?

For me, music is a way to contemplate my existence. I think the simple act of making and experiencing art elevates us, and in the process we may evolve into a more peaceful and less murderous species. In other words, if we think more about our amazing lives through the inspiration of art then we might stop killing each other.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

I have a few different rigs for different kinds of playing. I have a Les Paul Custom, an Eastman AR-810, and two Washburn guitars: a J6S [archtop] and an HB35 [semi-hollow 335 style], which are very good instruments but really affordable. Flying with expensive guitars is not advisable. Instead, I use these and change out the electronics to match the Gibson version. This way, if TSA airline security or baggage handlers break them, I can afford to replace them. I use Fender amps on tour. I own a ’70s silverface Deluxe Reverb, a Marshall JCM 900, and two Acoustic Image amps. I made my own cabinets for the Acoustic Image amps with Eminence Beta-10s.

For effects, I use an MXR distortion pedal, an Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy delay, a Fulltone Octafuzz, a Boss overdrive pedal, a Mooer Octave pedal, and a Mooger Fooger Ring Modulator. I generally improvise the setup and use of these pedals. I never have standard settings for anything, although, I know the ones I like the most. I force myself to deal with surprises while performing and recording.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I love makings records. I enjoy the fulfillment of an idea, the playback and selection of the tracks, the sequencing, doing the art, choosing the titles. To me that is the real work. Because I mainly do completely improvised music now, it too stays interesting in many very different ways, but the completion of a record is the most satisfying thing to me.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

Through decades of plugging away at pushing my music to new places. My area of music demands innovation all the time. The goal is to be original, even within a scene that demands originality as a base. My audience is interested in hearing new things done with a high degree of artistic precision. I put it that way because here precision might mean sounding very chaotic or unformulated. Those are two examples of virtuosity as defined by the musician making the music and the audience hearing it.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

I wish I could work more with Barry Guy and Anthony Braxton.  I have a large group of young musicians who really understand what I want to play but are so far unknown, like Yasmine Azaiez, Brad Barrett, Chris Cretella, and Dave Parmalee. My colleague Jamie Saft and I work really well together as a duo, with Mike Pride in The Spanish Donkey, and with the group Plymouth. Each musician has a solid set of skills, deep creativity and a lot of courage. None of them is stuck in the past or willing to stop trying to do new things. These days that is very rare, but all of my colleagues are like that.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

I have a new label called Glacial Erratic, which releases limited edition short, run cds. There is a new trio cd coming out with Evan Parker and Nate Wooley on Clean Feed Records, and The Spanish Donkey on RareNoise, which is a screaming monolithic epic trio of organ drums and guitar. Joe Morris Quartet will tour Europe in December, and a new cd of acoustic solo guitar music recorded at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam is coming out next month on Relative Pitch records. There are always at least 10 things going on at once. In addition I play double bass, so I have a whole other life of gigs and recordings on that. I teach full time too.



One thought on “Spotlight: Joe Morris

  1. Love to see Joe get some well-deserved attention. He’s been one of the greats of edgy American guitar for decades. Many years ago my rock band played on a bill with his trio at the Middle East in Boston. It was our first meeting and I’ve held him in high esteem ever since. He’s aggressive; melodic; harmonically sophisticated and a far out cat.

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