Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hail Hail Braxtonia!

I am lucky to live close to Middletown, Connecticut home to Wesleyan University where Anthony Braxton lives and works. At the end of each semester he gives two recitals, usually a small ensemble and a large ensemble. I've heard quite a few of these in the past 9 years and they are always beautiful and different. Anthony Braxton never ceases to amaze me. Since the first time I saw him perform at Paul's Mall in Boston in 75' or 76', I can't remember exactly, I've been completely surprised and inspired by his music. To those who think that he has stopped growing, or is stuck in a Tri-Axiom rut I invite you to check out the Wesleyan University calendar and then travel to Middletown for one of his free concerts in the great Crowell Concert Hall on the campus. If you do that you will understand that this amazing musical genius is anything but stuck and is in fact thriving, growing and expanding his work, his community of musicians and his overall artistic progression. He is simply too open, too interested, too compelled to make music to settle, plus his system is organized in such a way that surprise and the allowance of new material, new people, new ideas is built in as a requirement, indeed is an axiom, in his artistic point-of-view.

Two weeks ago I attended his small ensemble recital. He conducted a group of musicians that included Kevin O'Neil on guitar, Adam Kubota, on bass and others (sorry there was no program for the concert) two pianists, a second guitarist, alto, cello, and a drummer who played a floor tom with tremendous precision and musicality. They performed Composition 169 and Composition 96. Tough pieces indeed, beautifully played.

Afterward, I went backstage to say hello. Braxton, who is just one of the most positive and welcoming people I have even had the pleasure to know, was quite happy with the great performance. It was great as always to see him, and made even better by the presence of Kevin O'Neil and Tom Crean, two guitarists who have worked quite a bit with Braxton. Although I did make a four CD duo with the man I had never performed a concert with him. Great to be there as one of three guitarists. Long story short, I was invited to play the next recital. Last Thursday April 29th we did the concert and it was as unique as I could have ever expected. After all these years on my first public performance with Anthony Braxton I participated in another first-ever kind of AB realization.

The assembled group consisted of Braxton on saxophones, Tyshawn Sorey on drums, piano and trombone, Tom Crean on dobro, electric guitar, banjo, etc, Kevin O'Neil on guitar, Adam Kubota on bass and yours truly on guitar. I am not a reviewer of anyone's music and certainly not one of my own or of a concert I was a part of, but I will say that the music was as contemporary an example of what a group of improvisers can do as anything I have ever been a part of, and then some. Any chance I get to play guitar next to Braxton is a highlight of my life. Things happen that cannot happen anywhere else. There is a quality of lyricism and articulation like no other I have experienced. Later, when I ask "Braxton what is it with your articulation?", he answers "I was trying to keep up with you!" A spectacular example of his personality and also of recycled/recursive musical material, because of course I have been trying to keep up with him for 35 years, which is the only reason I can get close to keeping up with him.

Anyway, Tom and Kevin and I were a great team of compliment, and juxtaposition, they played some beautiful, surprising stuff as did Adam. Tyshawn on trombone is something that has got to be heard more by more people. We know him on drums and piano, but add that trombone for a whole new dimension. He told me later that he's played it for 20 years.

The group performed Braxton's "Falling Water Music" scores. Each of us were given two unique pages which consisted of symbols meant to suggest sound, form, line and dynamic possibilities, the latter especially suggested in the expressive brush-strokes of deep color. For me the amazing and most successful elements of the scores was the way they immediately allow and support the value of collective independence/juxtaposition and dynamic presentation through their explicit/implicit, design/notation. Another perfectly realized and successfully rendered accomplishment by one of the greatest artists on the planet at this time.

Friday, March 19, 2010

New Release!! GLASS KEY

My old friend Ben Hall, who is a great drummer/percussionist has been kind enough to invite me to record with him on LP’s that he’s produced on his labels. The first LP we made together “MELEE+Joe Morris Cloud Atlas" (Broken Research) came out last year. It features Ben, Hans Beutow on cello and Nate Wooley on trumpet. Our latest release “Glass Key” (You Are Your Only Machine) is co-led and co-produced by Chris Riggs who also plays guitar on the recording. Chris has a very unique approach to the guitar—sort of out of the Keith Rowe school using the guitar-as-sound-canvas approach. He has invented some very rigorous methods of playing the instrument in that regard.
Ben, Nate, Hans, and Chris are very strong musicians who make very unique music. Each situation I am in with them provides me with a different challenge and forces me to try things that I might not do in another setting. I’ve always been interested in coaxing new sounds out of the guitar, but I generally avoided any preparation of the instrument, choose instead to use technique. However in 2008 I performed Mauricio Kagel’s composition Der Schall under the direction of Anthony Coleman at Merkin Hall in New York City, which called for me to use various stringed instruments with all sorts of preparation. That experience opened my mind to the process in a new way. So considering that change I feel particularly lucky to have the chance to work with these great musicians in Glass Key.

Here is what a couple of folks have written about the new LP.

Debut LP for a new private press imprint run by percussionist Ben Hall (Graveyards/Broken Research) and guitarist/inventor Chris Riggs. This is a two guitar/drums blow-out described by Hall as taking the Blue Humans’ legacy of rock-inflected electronic improvisation out of noise and back into free/jazz modes. Joe Morris is, of course, one of the most inventive guitarists ever to use jazz theory as a launching pad for nosedives. Here his musical persona is a little crankier and more ‘Industrial’ than on previous outings, still trading in actual notes but smearing them and misarticulating so that its more about timbre, the specific metallic quality of the strings, than melodic development. Indeed, the whole group have a distinctive ‘metallic’ feel, with Hall playing skittering rhythms cut up with tiny architectures of cymbal klang while Riggs, well, it’s hard to know *exactly* what he’s doing but his playing expands on aspects of his solo work , running a conveyor belt of cycling timbres and rhythms that seem completely divorced from the nature of the guitar yet are in actuality intimately related to the specifics of its construction. While the music couldn’t really be described as ‘high energy’ – the pace is slow, corrosive, deliberately nuanced – Glass Key presents some of the most aggressively aformal and unequivocally blunt music to come out of this Michigan think-tank to date. Hand-numbered edition of only 300 copies in heavy card envelope sleeves with full-colour paste-on art. Recommended. VOLCANIC TONGUE

JOE MORRIS/CHRIS RIGGS/BEN HALL - Glass Key [Ltd Ed LP] (You Are Your Only Machine 01; USA) 300 copies, numbered by hand. Featuring Joe Morris on electric guitar, Chris Riggs on electric guitar and Ben Hall on drums. We all know Joe Morris and now thanks to percussionist Ben Hall who runs the Broken Research LP/MP3 label, we now meet an experimental guitarist from Michigan named Chris Riggs. This is an odd but unique trio and ultimately fascinating. While Joe & Ben create a quick yet restrained guitar & drums dialogue, Chris plays soft noise counterpoint. This album was carefully recorded so that each sound and exchange is distinct, the dynamic range is warm and wide. On side two Mr. Morris and/or Mr. Riggs rubs his or their strings with a pick getting a most eerie sound while the skeletal drums evoke restless ghosts. The sliding and bending of the strings keep things off balance as if we are about to fall into an endless hole. Riggs sounds as if he is communicating with insects by tapping cautiously on his guitar. The overall sound is somewhat disorienting but most effective. Although each side of this record is relatively short (about 13 minutes), it seems like just the right length to contemplate its subtle wonders. - Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Keith Rowe at New England Conservatory

Keith Rowe gave a Master Class at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston on Tuesday. He is visiting this week to participate in a residency with the composer Christian Wolfe. Four full days of performances, rehearsals and other activities of and about Wolfe’s compositions, are taking place in conjunction with the Classical and Contemporary Improvisation Departments.

I had only met Keith once before, in 2000 in Wels, Austria. Just like that first time when I introduced myself today he greeted me with a very nice warm hello. He is a very nice soft-spoken gentleman, who looks you right in the eye and seems genuinely interested in you. I told him that everyone was very excited to hear him speak. He responded by smiling and saying “I hope they aren’t too excited”.

His Master Class was mostly a talk with questions and ended with a group of students playing for him. He started by recounting his days as a student, being a jazz guitar player, and studying painting an art school in Plymouth, England, where he had the chance to jam in the basement jazz club with American GI musicians, but gradually getting bored with the constraints of playing jazz on the guitar. It was quite interesting to hear him discuss the issues of originality and ambiguity in painting versus jazz guitar circa 1958. I have always understood that in his case the decision to lay the guitar flat and deal with it in the same manner that Jackson Pollack dealt with the canvas was a creative and personal one that resulted in a different use and direction for the instrument and some beautiful music. It was great to be able to ask him why he didn’t just abandon the guitar and make a stringed instrument that was different than the guitar. His answer was that he enjoyed the challenge that came with the “burden” of the guitar—something he compared to the burden that painters of that period felt from the square canvas. When I said that I felt that playing normal guitar was a burden as well he agreed with a smile.

He was asked about his guitar-playing contemporaries in the UK, and of course Derek Bailey was mentioned, but I was really happily surprised when he mentioned John McLaughlin as the other player of importance in that period. He searched for the name of McLaughlin’s great record “Extrapolation” so I called it out and he asked me “What did you think of it Joe?” I responded that I thought it was beautiful. His casual interaction with all of us made for an easy exchange. I asked him a few questions I already knew the answers to, but that I thought the students should hear. His answers covered nearly the whole of his musical methodology, aesthetic and passions, and were delivered in a balanced and kindly but assertive series of declarations. One highlight was his story of a visit from some Japanese archers to a meeting of the secret society of Gurdjieff devotees that he belonged to, and how the focus, determination, precision and exactitude of their shooting of an arrow inspired him to think of making music in the same way—as if it you had one shot to make the perfect sound, so it must be exactly what should happen at that exact moment. He also talked extensively about how he classifies the objects he uses to generate sound on the guitar, how they are divided by the traditional use of the hands on the instrument, and how he thinks he uses 230 parameters of information to determine whether a sound is unique and useful.

Towards the end of the 90-minute Master Class he invited a few students up to play. I’ve worked with all but one of them and they are all terrific thoughtful players. They gave it a good one, but were ultimately a bit stumped by the issue of pitch versus sound/timbre and the problem of constant juxtaposition that Keith expected of them, instead of the kind of listening/interaction required in most improvised music. Keith spent some time helping them to work out the difference with a very honest and supportive assessment. He told them not to listen to each other. “Don’t listen,” he said. “Consider the experience of the room. Play the moment in the room and make the exact sound that needs to be played in this room at that moment” When a couple of students politely challenged him he quite respectfully answered with something of a “well that’s how you might work it out for yourself in your music” and finally a sincere “God Bless with that”.

It was clear throughout the talk that Keith Rowe's aesthetic and methodology is well defined and that it continues to grow. It was also clear that it is not meant in any way to prevent anyone else from discovering his or her own way. As he declared in the opening minutes of his talk “I have no dogma”. I know we all felt quite fortunate to have the chance to learn so much about this great artist and to enjoy the inspiration that his story offers.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sei Miguel

Sei Miguel who plays pocket trumpet, is one of the most interesting improvising musicians on the scene today. He and his wife Fala Mariam who plays alto trombone, and their close associates Cesar Burago on percussion and Rafael Toral on electronics Pedro Lourenco on bass make beautiful music in a near perfect conversational environment. Somehow Miguel has found that space where melody, rhythm, and a delicate balance of sound and silence bridges that gap between what is high art music and what is pure folk music.

Miguel who is Brazilian, lives in Lisbon Portugal. He and Fala Mariam are two of the deepest artists I have ever known. They are committed to making music and making art. Fala Mariam besides being one of the most original voices to play trombone,
is a fantastic painter as well. They operate in a kind of familial way with their ensemble and that closeness is obvious in all of their playing. They play with a vocal quality that is beyond anything called microtonal, with them it's just more personal than that.

The title of his new
CD on Clean Feed EsfĂ­ngico – Suite for a Jazz Combo might seem funny to people who think that a term like Jazz Combo is old or corny. But Miguel is very much committed to the idea that Jazz is still viable and indeed necessary as a platform for his music. Listening to him and performing with him—as I have done on two occasions, makes it easy to understand why that is. Miguel and his tight crew are speaking through their instruments, telling stories to each other and to listeners and always reaching for that rarefied space where music functions on so many levels that it defies description yet still reminds us of our humanity.

To me, any good original music that declares itself to be jazz, actually needs to ignore the tired old jazz dogma that says that good, original music has no place in jazz. Miguel and company play by those terms. They admire depth of intent, pure sound, close interaction and the sense of adventure that makes the great musicians associated with jazz truly beyond any category. Once again, like so many times before, new jazz has emerged in an unexpected place. This time Lisbon is where it's at.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bill Dixon Weight/Counterweight

Bill Dixon released a couple of recordings in 2009. This one on the Broken Research label, is a two LP set, and it didn't get enough of the attention it deserves. Dixon who is in his 80's performs with two young percussionists Ben Hall and Aaron Siegel. Their contribution on drums and tympani offers a different situation in which to hear Dixon. It is spare, but consistent, intense and supportive.

Dixon has never sounded better. He uses his unique, self-made (and hugely influential) vocabulary to generate an enormous variety of statements out of his horns. They range from blips and blasts, to rich, evocative melodies. Regardless of what it is, every sound Dixon makes is intentional and makes sense how and when he uses it. He uses all of the space that surrounds him as impetus and permission to make every effort result in a unique sound. The percussionists support him with a low, rumbling array of textures that is both elemental and richly musical. The interaction between the players is perfectly balanced and maintains a complex continuity that allows the music to gradually morph through each duration. Equal parts melody, pure sound, noise (helped with some simple contact mic-like electronics, that nicely flatten out the natural acoustic dimensions). You could hear this as ambient, or industrial, energetic or pastoral depending on the section. This is a perfect document to support Dixon's declaration that his work is "always about the sound". Releasing it on LP makes for a really enjoyable listening experience. 17 minutes is the perfect duration for hearing it and then enjoying the silence at the end of the side. It allows you time to pause and contemplate what just happened.

This music reminds me of the complexity of granite and the currents of air that follow a flapping bird wing. The title Weight/Counterweight says exactly that. It's as heavy as core ten steel and as light as air. The amazing stasis/control of velocity, density variable is virtuosic. Truly beautiful.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Upcoming Performances

Joe Morris Group

Joe Morris-guitar
Steve Lantner-piano
Luther Gray

ESP-Disk' LIVE @ The Bowery Poetry Club
308 Bowery (Between Houston and Bleecker)
New York, NY 10012-2802
F train to 2nd Ave or 6 train to Bleecker

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

This is the same group the was on my ESP DISK CD "Colorfield" released in September.

Joe Morris / Barre Phillips DUO
Our first performances together since the release of "Elm City Duets 2006" (Clean Feed)

Europe January 2010
Jan 24, Barcelona, Spain
Jan 25, Lisbon, Portugal
Jan 26, Huesca, Spain
Jan 27, Berlin, Germany

Joe Morris-Katrin Mickiewicz (violin)
Jan 28, Berlin Germany

for more information and for bookings in Europe