Like French novelist Georges Perec, who scribed A Void without using the letter E, jazz players Joe Morris, William Parker, and Hamid Drake have expanded their creative potential by limiting their resources. Their new discs, Morris’ Singularity and Parker and Drake’s Piercing the Veil, represent the sound of evolution via deletion. Guitarist Morris, who usually leads a trio or quartet, grabs a steel-string acoustic and goes it solo; bassist Parker and drummer Drake, who often provide the backbone for brassy skronk, peel away most of the noise and give the rhythm section some as a duo. Sure, nontraditional lineups haven’t been exotic in the jazz realm since the days when Herbie Hancock first went electric, in the early ’70s, but these particular atom-splits yield originality rarely encountered in contemporary jazz.
Yet these records ain’t exactly jazz, at least in a conventional sense. Hell, they ain’t even free jazz. Whereas a lot of music that gets tagged “avant-jazz” these days is well-steeped in ’60s nostalgia, these two stripped-down improv sets sidestep narrow stylistic revisionism, fanning out to touch on as many musical idioms as possible.
New Haven, Conn., native Morris has carved out his own expressionistic voice over the course of two decades’ worth of discs. Existing somewhere between Jim Hall’s velvet-smooth tone and Derek Bailey’s right-angled attack, Morris’ intrepid fret maneuvers flow like two-second samples of mellifluous Wes Montgomery leads plundered and reconstructed all ass-backward. As an improviser, Morris doesn’t react to other folks as much as he forces them to react to him. On last year’s excellent Deep Telling, the guitarist’s clean, measured Les Paul lines mellowed out the otherwise fiery DKV Trio (Drake, bassist Kent Kessler, and reed player Ken Vandermark), coaxing it away from the well-worn quiet-then-loud-then-quiet free-jazz path. The nearly structure-free result, like heyday Lennie Tristano, sounds outsiderish and angular but remains accessible.
Even though Morris’ electric ensemble work eschews traditional jazz chord changes, the largely self-taught guitarist usually bookends his free-form solos with ragged melodic phrases that actually swing. On the 100-percent-improvised Singularity, though, Morris avoids forming any melodies at all. It almost sounds like a game: The guy steps right up to the edge of a riff and then backs off and starts working his way up to another precipice.
From Note 1 of the restless disc, it’s hard to get your bearings straight. The disjointed introductory chordings of the first track, “Light,” are as close to high ‘n’ lonesome cabin-porch pickin’ as they are to smoky jazz-club vapor trails. The dark, chaotic gush of “Shape” sounds like Morris trying to fit all of the notes from Joni Mitchell’s folk-fusion classic Hejira into four minutes. And the circular hammer-on patterns of “Atmosphere” and “Sense” are elastic, loopy takes on Terry Riley- and Steve Reich-style minimalism.
As evidenced by the distant rockist echoes and jagged muted-string percussion of the album-closing “Rock,” Morriswho grew up listening to Hendrixian heavy psychis anything but puritanical about his ax language. Yet despite all the genre-hopping gestures, Singularity plays more like one big 45-minute stream-of-consciousness burst than a collection of individual songs. Rarely does the guitarist slow down to dwell on a chord or even expand a repetition beyond a brief drone.
Although the sheer complexity of these tracks can be a bit overwhelming for a straight-through listen, Singularity’s kinda pretentious title rings true: Morris’ unfettered but precise playing could never be mistaken for the work of another guitarist. This is easily one of Morris’ best recordings, and it truly lives up to the rule-abandoning spirit of free jazzeven if it doesn’t sound anything like what’s come before.
Put on Parker and Drake’s rhythmcentric Piercing the Veil and the first thing out of the speakers sounds like hiphop. Or at least it sounds like something Mos Def should be sampling. Minimal and Meters-funky, “Black Cherry”‘s simple, booming vamp proves that the New York bassist (and Morris alum) and Chicago drummer really need only to show up to impress.
A veteran of the early days of free jazz, Parker has been whipping up his low-end-note blizzards since playing on tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe’s landmark 1973 album Black Beings. Although he occasionally records solo or in duos, the prolific bassist has filled much of his time since anchoring rhythm sections for maximalist avant-jazzers such as pianist Cecil Taylor and tenor saxophonist David S. Ware. Parker’s own groups, In Order to Survive and the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, similarly strive for utmost sonic density.
Drake has also recorded his fair share of thick, high-energy free improv. Although not as ubiquitous as Parker, the drummer has made a name for himself backing up blustery tenor saxophonists such as Pharoah Sanders, Fred Anderson, and Vandermark. But it’s Drake’s percussion work with nonjazz folks such as Gambian vocalist/kora player Foday Muso Suso and Moroccan vocalist/guembri player Mahmoud Gania that seems to be the main influence on the boundary-crossing Piercing the Veil. As a result, the discrecorded the day after Drake and Parker’s first show together as a duooften sounds more like a non-Western field recording than the product of two American jazz musicians.
Although a few of Piercing the Veil’s drum-and-bass cuts (“Chatima” and the title track) just sound like the bottom end of a blistering free-jazz track, Parker and Drake wisely spend a majority of the disc quietly exploring Asian instruments. “Heavenly Walk” and “Chaung Tzu’s Dream” find the duo working up textured, tabla-driven percussion grooves. “Japeru” showcases Parker’s whispering shakuhachi lines and Drake’s gentle frame-drum throb. And “Nur al Anwar” and “Bodies Die/Spirits Live” recall Morocco’s Master Musicians of Jajouka, with Parker’s sharp and snaky bombard solos weaving between Drake’s deep beats.
“Loom Song” briefly revisits “Black Cherry”‘s Spartan street funk late in the disc, but Piercing the Veil is mostly about sonic globe-trotting. There’s certainly a precedent for that in free jazz: Multiculti LPs such as Don Cherry’s Eternal Rhythm and Joe Harriot’s Indo-Jazz Fusions mixed post-Ornette stylings with Eastern influences and minimalist classical impulses more than 30 years ago. But whereas those experiments often felt cursory and overloaded with hipster cachet, Piercing the Veil’s streamlined jams work because they’re more than just musical appropriation. Instead of Euro-styled freakouts played on Third World instruments, Parker and Drake drop some pure ‘n’ gritty improvisation that doesn’t belong to any one stylistic region.
With any luck, Piercing the Veil’s less-is-more sound isn’t just a day trip for these guys, because this is a crucial free-jazz advance. CP