Sunday, October 25, 2009

W'oh! Mo Joe Mo(rris)

I think I spoke too soon.

When I reviewed Joe Morris' album Wildlife (AUM Fidelity) in the October issue of JazzTimes, I opined that Morris' bass playing might be starting to overshadow his work as a guitarist. No sooner did I write that review than three new Morris CD showed up in my mailbox, two of which have him playing guitar. So it looks like guitar and bass are getting equal time in his hands. Along with ESP-Disk's recent release by the Flow Trio - which also finds Morris on bass and is reviewed by me in the new November JT - it's been a fruitful season for Mr. Morris.

Today on Earth (AUM Fidelity) casts Morris the guitarist in a slightly more conventional setting, as part of a quartet with longtime drummer Luther Gray, alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs and bassist Timo Shanko. That is to say, the album features straight out 4/4 swinging and AABA themes in addition to some more bumpy structures.

"Backbone" opens with a guitar-alto unison theme before Morris goes into a solo full of crisp lines that occasionally toy with the rhythm, thanks to Gray's accents. The title track has a very Ornette-ish feel, from the tumbling bass and drums underneath it to the staccato melody and tone of Hobbs' alto. But similarities make way to originality as the saxophonist's growls open up his solo. The guitar and alto interplay at the start of "Embarrassment of Riches" has the sonic quality of a siren thanks to their close intervals and because of the way Morris seems to be picking.

Four of the seven tracks on Today on Earth clock in at 10 or 11 minutes, and all of that time is well spent. Of his recent releases this album is one of the best place to start (behind the Flow Trio), since its places his adventurous improvisational chops in a setting that makes them stand out even more.

Colorfield (ESP-Disk) finds Morris and Gray freely improvising with pianist Steve Lantner. In his liner notes, Morris (again on guitar) borrows the album title from a school of painting that disregards figurative elements for uninterrupted layers of color. He also says the group derived inspiration from Cecil Taylor's bass-less trio with Jimmy Lyons and either Sunny Murray or Andrew Cyrille.

Unfortunately, the color analogy at times seems appropriate in the wrong way. The four tracks, while interesting at times, suffer from the limitations of a one-colored canvas - a lack of dynamics. The group begins in a certain mood and doesn't do much to get beyond it or expand upon it. Gray sounds especially grounded in opener "Transparent," spastically tapping on snare and hi-hat. Lantner and Morris contribute some pointillistic comments, but the next level never comes. The three-way exchanges in "Silver Sun" sound spirited at the outset, but don't exactly hold up over 13 minutes. "Bell Orange Curves" switches things up a bit, because the rhythms transform themselves throughout its nearly 16 minutes, but the guitar solo also feels a bit noodly too.
Compared to say, Taylor's Montmartre performances on Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come, that group was a constant barrage (I mean that in a good way) of soloists with supporters throwing musical "yeah"s and "you said it"s behind them. That was almost combative while Colorfield comes off as more polite. Maybe it'd be different in person.

Not be confused with a band with a similar sounding name that recording for Knitting Factory about 10 years ago, the Othertet features Morris on bass with Taylor Ho Bynum (a recent Anthony Braxton associate) on cornet and flugelhorn, Bill Lowe (who has played with everyone from Cecil Taylor to Eartha Kitt) on bass trombone and tuba and Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng on drums. Their self-titled release (Engine) has an all-encompassing feel of prime era Art Ensemble of Chicago. Obeng, a master drummer originally from Ghana, at various points plays trap kit, talking drum and percussion, that latter which he cleverly pans from channel to channel during one track. Bynum, on the other hand, often sounds like Don Cherry, circa New York Contemporary Five era with some piercing lines.

Things open with a lengthy piece credited to the group, which suggests an improv. If that's the case, the rapid point-counterpoint between Lowe's trombone and Bynum's muted cornet suggest that this group must have a strong rapport among them, and the rest of the disc proves that to a great degree. Lowe's "Haptown/Trenton" sounds like a Jazz Messengers blues arranged for tuba and flugelhorn. Morris does some slow, solid walking on "Dreamsketch" and "Cold Day Clip" takes a three-note tone poem and builds it into a tour de force, full of growling brass, elastic drums that play melody and rhythm and a bass that holds it all together.
The album's relatively lo-fi quality makes the whole thing sound a bit muddy, since a lot of the high end is missing. At the same time, it makes Cole and Bynum sound otherworldly, like a soprano sax or one of its lower brothers wandered into the room at some point, thereby adding to the sound of surprise. In other words, it doesn't detract too much from the session.

No comments: