Joe Morris‘s Camera was recorded on April 3, 2010. The group consists of Morris on guitar, Katt Hernandez on violin, Junko Fujiwara Simons on cello and Luther Gray on drums. Gray is a longtime Morris collaborator; the other two are new to his circle. This combination of instruments is also new for Morris, and there’s a corresponding shift in energy on this disc when compared with some of his other recent releases like Today On Earth, Wildlife or Colorfield.
Morris takes the lead and solos first on the album’s opening track, which starts like someone fired a pistol and has been given the deceptively generic title “Person in a Place.” Like the title of the album Today On Earth, this can be taken cynically as the equivalent of a shrug, or as a nod toward universality. We are all people in our individual places, and this music has the chance to reach each of us. Knowing Morris as I do, the latter meaning seems much more likely. Anyway, the piece is about ten minutes long, and the violin and cello interact quite beautifully once the guitar drops away. Gray’s drumming is melodic and propulsive throughout; the way he works the toms during his own solo reminds me of Max Roach backing Clifford Brown. When he’s supporting Hernandez and Simons, though, he’s a more sensitive player, becoming 1/3 of a trio rather than laying down a floor for them to dance on. Hernandez’s violin is thin and high-pitched, sitting in the far left of the stereo field and singing like a small child. Simons never tries to convince the listener her cello is a bass; she stays in the middle of the instrument’s range, releasing streams of notes and occasionally letting one ring out at length.
The second piece, “Street Scene,” is more abstract, less bound to a predetermined melody, than its predecessor. Gray is all but absent, basically dusting his drums at the back of the room, and after a bunch of simultaneous playing that never quite becomes interaction, Morris and Simons drop away, allowing Hernandez to play a really impressively suspenseful solo. Indeed, the entire piece is an exercise in pleasurable suspense.
The next two tracks, “Angle of Incidence” and “Evocative Shadow,” are closer in spirit to “Person in a Place” than to “Street Scene.” On the latter track, Gray dances lightly on the cymbals; Simons bows with restrained force, creating ominous haunted-house moods; Morris picks out single notes with care, speeding up and slowing down in response to an inner logic that’s perceptible to, if not quite explained for, the listener; and Hernandez drones in her corner, seeming almost to sulk.
“Patterns on Faces” begins with a harsh Gray-Simons duo passage, including plenty of low-end bowing; the drums sound muffled, like he’s stuffed them with cardboard. When Morris enters, his lines are pure bebop, almost bluesy at times. The album’s final track, “Reflected Object.” (punctuation in original), builds from spirited if melodically distant guitar-violin interplay (shadowed by the cello) to a rumbling, tom-heavy drum solo before winding down in what, for Morris, is practically a shower of sparks.
Camera is a relatively short album (for jazz in 2010), only running about 50 minutes. It has the concision and rigor of chamber music, but the exhilaration of free playing at its most inspired. Its late-in-the-year release (and staff upheavals at ESP-Disk) almost ensure that it won’t get the attention it deserves from the jazz critical community. Don’t let it pass you by.