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Joe Morris - Beautiful Existence

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Artist: Joe Morris

Album: Beautiful Existence

Label: Clean Feed

Review date: May. 23, 2006

Boston-based guitarist and bassist Joe Morris was “discovered” by most listeners in the mid-1990s on a series of killer small-group recordings. But he’s been at it for decades, developing a unique approach to this highly overdetermined instrument. When most people think of free music and guitar, the first thing that pops into their heads is usually the high-volume noise epics of Sonny Sharrock or the insectoid pointillism of Derek Bailey. Each of these paths is rich and has produced lasting music, but Morris’ approach has always been somewhat different. Playing a clean-toned Les Paul and relying only minimally (if at all, on some records) on extended techniques, Morris’ heady playing owes as much to alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and pianist Cecil Taylor as it does to other string players (though I’ve always heard a lot of Michael Gregory Jackson in there). His playing is often quite rapid and complex (most listeners understandably get pulled into the vertiginous rhythms of his phrases, but there is a sophisticated, at times Ornette-like harmonic sensibility at work too), but he’s a patient chordal player when he wants to be and his work on balladic material can be stunning.

For several years Morris has concentrated on his bass playing, documenting this on his own Riti imprint. It’s been sometime since I’ve heard him return to the trio or quartet format he thrives in, yet he has kept up his explorations in this context nonetheless. And thankfully, he took one of his groups into the studio in the fall of 2004. His long-standing association with alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs, bassist Tim Shanko, and drummer Luther Gray pays off with a richly concentrated sound.

The whole disc is filled with fantastic improvising (not least on the concluding title track, where everyone stretches out) but what’s really distinctive about this one is the diversity of compositional materials. “Smear Spring” is an effervescent, hyper-drive harmolodic tune that occasionally seems to flash with a dash of Ornette’s “Happy House.” The slinking “Some Good” features some wonderfully intense layered rhythms, with a loping pulse from Shanko, jagged cymbal accents (in 9/8, I think), and some fluid melody work on top. “King Cobra” is the most conventionally swinging of these tunes, but the improvisations are so inventive (Shanko’s killer solo, for example) that the conventional/unconventional distinction starts to seem trivial. “Knew Something” builds into a hypnotic groove with some absolutely superb honking and whinnying from Hobbs, not to mention some Blackwell-worthy passages from the estimable Mr. Gray. And the most powerfully affecting tune here is one of Morris’ most venerable compositions, “Real Reason.” In short, this is a very welcome entry in Morris’ discography, with both familiar virtues and new pathways taken. Not just a fine jazz guitar record, a fine jazz record all round.

By Jason Bivins

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