Joe Morris Quartet: UNDERTHRULiner notes for Underthru (OmniTone 11904)

Much in the way Jack Kerouac dilated English through his protracted "bop prosody," Joe Morris makes his guitar speak in long, sometimes knotted, often alliterative, page-long sentences, using familiar sounds in new ways.  Repeated melodic patterns or motifs (what jazz musicians call "licks") evolve through tucking and twisting them with standard lexicon and street parlance to construct something new out of the old.

Ever since he began playing the guitar and composing at age fourteen, Joe was searching for something new:

It was clear to me from the start that jazz is completely about being unconventional and unique.  The real body of work is made up of the inventions of unconventional musicians.  I take that model and I try to deal with the primary influences that those musicians made us aware of and I try to speak about those things with my own voice.  My way of playing is just an effort to deal with the truest version I know of the meaning and motion of the music.

Joe's long sentences draw not only from the standard dictionary, but from diverse musical traditions from around the world, incorporating (to borrow a Kerouac expression) "the history and vicissitudes" of those traditions into his art.

...instead of learning to play the guitar by just studying guitarists, I studied the aesthetics of the musicians who were the most original and I tried to trust my own version of what they suggested we deal with.   Adding to those suggestions is the ultimate goal. My version is not fixed.   It's changing all the time.

That metamorphic bent, grounded on a new conceptual framework, has impressed and even dazzled critics who have used expressions like "state of the art," "genuinely unique territory," "elegant compositions, intelligent, assertive, energetic soloing," "rich quilted fabric," and "no better guitar trio anywhere" to describe Joe and his ensembles.  Likewise, astute jazz and even alternative music fans have turned onto Joe's music, but after almost twenty years of playing, while Joe feels a wider audience is beginning to get it:

People will catch up, but more importantly, new people are into this. Listeners looking for their own experiences.   They know that we are playing to them now.  We aren't playing to the academy waiting for their approval.  The audience that gets what we do knows that the reward is in hearing the flow of sound, melody and rhythm.  If they listen carefully the logic, patterns, and expression will reveal themselves. This music is for and about the people listening.

Perhaps this recording, Underthru, will help expand the listening audience through the album's (using Joe's words) "relaxed, more spacious, cooler in feel" than his other four quartet albums.

Underthru is less turbulent than A Cloud of Black Birds and less tightly wound and arranged than You Be Me.... Underthru is "down" (in the cool sense), but moves ahead.   Mat, Chris, and Gerald are really strong and totally original voices.

The "tunes" he writes are musical vehicles which Joe and his band members use as a springboard into solo improvisation and group interaction:

My understanding of repertoire as a "free jazz" artist allows me to attempt different thematic and structural material to alter the pattern of our performance.  So I write what I think will give us a place to play freely and not repeat ourselves.  Sometimes no theme or structure is a very confining thing.  Often the freest or the most structured parts are invisible in the performance anyway and also mutually supportive.

Joe's commentary on his tunes is enlightening.   Here are the pieces and what he had to say about them:

The title piece ["Underthru"] is a medium tempo vamp in 6/4 with a freely placed overlaid melody.  The violin plays the first solo which allows me to do some very spare comping.  Writers always say that I don't play chords or comp.  The main reason for me to work in a quartet is so I can comp.   I do a lot of it, but I try to never do it in a predictable way, so they miss it.
"Remarks" is a blues.   Each phrase of the melody can be played at any tempo. The melody is intentionally loose.  That's the dynamic blues part.  The kind of "bridge" part of the piece is a trill/swell which creates a strong mysterious dynamic.
"Routine 3" works as a catapult into a kind of vertical swing.  I love to improvise using big intervals and try to make them sound like a clear melody.  Mat has his own way of playing in this context.  Chris' solo on this piece is beautiful.
"Two Busses and a Long Walk" is what I call a flowthrough melody structure.  Mat, Chris and Gerald react to the melody I play.  The melody suggests a certain sensibility, kind of exotic.  Of course there is a long history of exotic tunes in jazz.  I've written and recorded a few of them.  The piece is very open ended.
"Manipulatives" is what I call a springboard.  The head, like a lot of my tunes has all the reference material we need to construct a performance.  These kinds of pieces seem simple, but it's really hard to write a new one.  They are intentionally short and dynamic.  Something to jump off of.

For the band, something to "jump off of."   For the listener, something to hop onto.  Go Underthru and get (if you'll excuse the pun) on the road with Joe Morris.

—Frank Tafuri

[Read complete interview with Joe Morris.]

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