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Joe Morris Quartet - Graffiti in Two Parts

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Artist: Joe Morris Quartet

Album: Graffiti in Two Parts

Label: RogueArt

Review date: Jul. 17, 2012


Joe Morris Quartet - "Graffiti - Part II (excerpt)" (Graffiti in Two Parts)


We all have performances that we attended which get stuck in our head. Years later, there are the indelible images; remembrances of the night, the venue, the musicians poised at their instruments, and that ineffable memories of the music that was created. The performance captured on this disc is one of those nights for me. On a warm May evening back in 1985, guitarist Joe Morris assembled a remarkable meeting between himself, violinist Malcolm Goldstein, cornetist Butch Morris, and the brilliant (and overlooked) master Lowell Davidson (1941-1990) on aluminum acoustic bass and drums. For years, there had been talk of the recording of that night being released but it seemed, after a while, that it might never come to fruition. But now, 27 years later, the music has finally resurfaced.

The ’80s were an exhilarating and active time in Boston for both the local musicians toiling to develop their music and the improvisers coming through on a regular basis. Morris was in the middle of things, working with musicians like Davidson, John Voigt, Tom Plsek, Laurence Cook, Steve Adams, or Alan Chase and crossing paths with visitors like Dewey Redman, Fred Hopkins, Thurman Barker and Billy Bang. Things came to a peak in February of ’85 with a festival at Tufts University that featured performances by Joe Morris, Jimmy Lyons, Leo Smith, a Butch Morris conduction, Jemeel Moondoc and Jerome Cooper, but regular sessions at clubs and galleries (though not always well attended) kept a vital pulse. Even in the mid ’80s, though, Davidson moved as a bit of a shadow-figure, and though he would play occasionally at galleries or local clubs, if people knew him at all, it was more from his reputation than from his performances. Ask around now and that’s even more the case. The only documentation of his music his ESP disk or more recently, MVP LSD, the disc Morris, Voigt and Plsek released based on his strategies for improvisation. Graffiti in Two Parts should help with that.

During the ’80s Morris had been actively working with Davidson, and for this concert he envisioned a cross-pollination drawing on Goldstein’s approach to structured improvisation and extended string technique, Davidson’s expansive sense of multi-layered textural flow, and the guitarist’s own explorations of the percussive attack and cascading polyrhythms of West African stringed instruments like the riti and gonji. He ran into Butch Morris a day before the concert at a local Cambridge club and invited him to join in, and the addition of the cornetist’s muted, calligraphic playing proved the perfect foil to round out the ensemble.

For Graffiti’s first set, I remember Davidson sitting on a short stool amidst a battered array of drums and cymbals, his lanky frame crouched so that his knees were up around his shoulders, wielding multiple mallets, sticks, and chopsticks in each hand. His orchestrated clatter, the plinking attack of banjouke (a four-stringed mash-up of a ukulele neck and banjo body), the skittering scrapes and sawed motifs of violin, and the clipped smears and fluttering looped kernels of cornet immediately click together on the recording with an idiosyncratic sense of interaction and motion. Their music is propelled along, but with the energy of excited fragments and textures caroming off of each other rather than with any notion of polyrhythm or open pulse. Likewise the distinctive timbres of each of the instruments dart and weave against each other in mercurial, intersecting trajectories rather than in any sense of call-and-response. Street noises and sirens waft in occasionally, complementing the spontaneously cycling skeins. At various points, a particular voice emerges — whether a freely lyrical thread or low groan from cornet, oscillating flayed violin arco, the thunder and splash of percussion, or the scrabbling cascades of banjouke notes — and Morris likens this to the way that the marks and tags of graffiti accrue on walls in overlapping layers of coded messages. But overall, this is a music of inextricable, multifaceted voices within the ensemble.

For the second set, Davidson switched to aluminum acoustic bass and the hard-edged resonance and slightly boomy sonorities of the instrument make subtle shifts to the dynamic of the collective improvisation. Morris also switches to electric guitar, but played mostly by bowing the strings with a slightly notched pick. Without the active spatter of percussion, this second piece moves more in ebbs and flows while still maintaining the dynamic tension of the first set. Here, even more so, the music sounds utterly unique, drawing on the momentum of free jazz and the non-idiomatic interaction of free improvisation while introducing a vocabulary and structural approach of its own. The momentum and structure, developed organically from the coursing intersection of the collective voices and the counterpoint of textures and harmonic overtones.

Sitting down and listening to this one only reinforces the memories of that night. The fact this is only the second recording of Lowell Davidson, and the only one to capture his mature voice is enough to recommend it alone. But this document is far more than that, and nearly four decades on, it sounds as captivating and inspired as the night it was performed.

By Michael Rosenstein

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