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Joe Morris Quartet

Homestead Records


David S. Ware Quartet

Homestead Records

“Is [avant-garde] jazz dead as we know it? Well, that all depends on what you know.”—Lester Bowie

In speaking to jazz’s pre-’70s avant garde, A.B. Spellman once noted that “the New Music is no longer new, not as a phenomenon” and that the “number of musicians has likewise grown. They number a few hundred, and…[these] numbers swell with the birthrate.” Three decades later, concern for the continued well-being of jazz’s avant-garde is certainly warranted. For some years now, much of jazz’s swelling has been in the number of emerging musicians choosing to approximate more established musical styles, while fewer and fewer enlist on the journey into less conventional terrain.

In recent years, fame has favored convention. In the liner notes to the now-renowned trumpeter’s 1982 debut, Stanley Crouch dubbed Wynton Marsalis “one of the most remarkable young musicians to appear in jazz since the early 1960s.” The same year, Elektra released a recording titled Young Lions that showcased many of the new music’s burgeoning talents—flautist James Newton, trombonist Craig Harris, vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, and pianist Anthony Davis, to name a few. But while Marsalis has gone on to serve as the contemporary icon for the near-century-old art form, Newton, Davis, and many other like-minded musicians seemed to have blended quietly into the ranks of a subgenre whose formal beginnings, most would agree, are rooted in the early-’60s formation of Chicago’s AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians).

Boston-raised guitarist Joe Morris is part of a current wave of post-AACM musicians attempting to shift the focus of the avant-garde away from its elder statesmen. It’d be something of a stretch to label the 40-year-old Morris with the pseudo-hip “young lion” tag. But in terms of recorded output, Morris’ tenure is quite consistent with Marsalis’—the musicians’ debuts were less than a year apart. And Morris’ self-penned liner notes to Flip and Spike, his 1992 trio release, provide a counterbalance to more Wyntonesque platitudes: “Although there is an obvious need for interpretive performances of older material and styles, that doesn’t mean that the new creative work is incorrect…re-thinking strong ideas is the way most art progresses.”

In a similar way, Morris’s Elsewhere forgoes well-worn models—no random-energy music or familiar head-solo-head regurgitations—opting instead for more organic fusings of theme, melody, and extemporization. Unlike more conventional jazz ensembles, the Morris group emphasizes the relationship between notes, not particular lines or chord sequences. Focusing more on intervals than harmonics enables a more elastic dialogue. This interplay is certainly aided by the fact that Morris’ fellow musicians on the date—pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, and drummer Whit Dickey—since ’92 have functioned as the rhythm section for fellow avant-gardist and saxophonist Davis S. Ware.

Their telepathic support is clearly evident on the opening “Plexus” and near-closing “Mind’s Eye,” the recording’s fastest-paced selections. On both, the musicians seem to enter in bombastic unison, though further listening reveals that each player’s relationship to the pieces’ quick pacing is slightly different. On “Plexus,” Morris begins by repeating a cascading six-note phrase, then proceeds to gradually insert fractured notes that further expound on his opening statement. At a moment’s notice, clipped chords metamorphose into longer, more deliberate blueslike phrases; rounded notes swiftly splinter into shimmering clusters of sound. Unlike many current guitarists, Morris is able to alter his sounds without the benefit of pedal effects. His more natural approach involves serrating the edges of his guitar pick so it produces bowlike vibrations. Overtone changes occur via adjustments in the pressure he applies to the strings.

Though Morris’ speed and sonic temperament have been likened to those of the late Sonny Sharrock, his closest antecedent may actually be the still-active Derek Bailey, one of Europe’s more renowned avanteers. The difference is that Morris replaces Bailey’s more abstract leanings with a sound that’s more urgent and almost always in the groove, as slanted as that “groove” may be.

Whether it’s the recording’s two moderately tempoed pieces (“Rotunda” and the title song), its pristine ballad (“Cirrus”), or its lilting blues (“Violet”), Morris’ Elsewhere rewardingly proves that when concordance is implied, as opposed to demanded, unpredictable exchanges can result.

Rumors to the contrary, Stanley Crouch is no card-carrying musical conservative, for he also wrote the liner notes to Passage to Music, avant-garde saxophonist David S. Ware’s 1988 debut. On it, he describes Ware as a musician who “understands the communicative powers of the saxophone, the weight and the translucence to harsh textures that have made the instrument so fundamental to the idiom of Afro-American improvising.” Like Morris, the New

Jersey-bred Ware also spent some years (’67 to ’73) in the Boston area, but it’s likely that Ware’s most rewarding experiences during this period were his trips to New York to practice under the tutelage of the great Sonny Rollins. It’s Rollins’ ability to evoke repressed fire that is most reflected in Dao, the latest from the David S. Ware Quartet.

Ware’s last two recordings (Cryptology and Earthquation) were unrelenting bombardments of sheer energy and sound. Dao is a welcome return to the songfulness of his earlier work. It begins with “Interdao,” introduced via a two-minute unaccompanied tenor saxophone solo, in which a simple melodic phrase seems to tag-team with Ware’s freer venturings. As Ware concludes, Shipp enters, also alone, restating the saxophonist’s line. Shipp’s subsequent embellishing ushers in Parker’s bowed bass and Dickey’s rumbling drums, each finding its unique place in the now denser matrix. The piece closes without Ware’s return.

On “Rhythm Duo,” Shipp’s dense note clusters, made with both left and right hands playing the lowest register of keys, form an ominous vamp to Ware’s moaning shrieks and wails. Full, pungent bass and uncadenced cymbal rides further thicken the rhythmic mix, as Ware’s lines confidently grow more angular and fragmentary before finally dissolving in shorter, more introverted tones.

“Tao Above Sky” and “Dao Feel” are the recording’s lone ballads, if they can be called that. “Pretty nightmares” would be more apt. The pacing of both compositions is slower, though they are less static than the standard ballad. Instead, the beauty of each lies in how its individual parts—Ware’s soulful bellows, Shipp’s stark romanticism, Parker’s hopeful plodding, and Dickey’s resolute shadings—jaggedly align and realign themselves in shimmering splendor.

While they clearly evoke the adventurousness of ’60s avant-garde, Morris and Ware’s latest are much more than a harking back to the free improvisations of that period. Instead, each sheds light on aspects of jazz that today could use some illumination.CP