Joe Morris has been a crucial figure on the global free jazz/free music scene since the 1980s. Starting out as a guitarist, he expanded to bass, and has worked with many of the major figures on the avant-jazz scene, including Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Anthony Braxton, David S. Ware, Barre Phillips, Ken Vandermark, Joe and Mat Maneri, Ivo Perelman, and many, many others. He’s also been a teacher at the New England Conservatory for many years. His extensive experiences as a player, and his teaching career, have led him to codify his thoughts on music in the book Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music, which he’s published under his own Riti imprint. (Buy it from Amazon.)
The book describes ways in which players can create free music through three crucial and connected processes: synthesis, interpretation, and invention. He offers specific strategies which musicians can engage in, or reject, either of which will produce a positive (as in active) result. In the latter half of the book, he offers in-depth analysis of what he considers the four seminal methodologies of free music: Anthony Braxton‘s Tri-Axiom Theory, Ornette Coleman‘s Harmolodics, and Cecil Taylor‘s Unit Structures, and the principles guiding European free improvisation. He also includes the answers to a questionnaire he sent fifteen prominent musicians, many if not all of whom he has personally collaborated with. It’s a fascinating book, and one that definitely fills a void in music scholarship and pedagogy. The language of free jazz and free music is frequently that of half-baked spirituality or hazy post-hippie ideas about freedom and interplay, with little concrete advice for the musician seeking a way into what can appear forbiddingly chaotic from the outside. Morris shows the reader where the doors are, and opens them, letting much-needed light in.
Let’s begin at the beginning – what inspired you to write this book?
Well, first off, there isn’t a book like this. I’ve never found a book like this. That’s one thing. And so I would say that because this information hasn’t been available in one place, or hasn’t been easy to decipher in the available places, I attempted to decipher it, and started doing that a long time ago, in the 70s, and developed some ability to understand it and articulate it in ways that actually were functional, not in ways that were philosophical or better to someone else, but which worked for me. And then when I started teaching in the mid-’90s, I really needed to have language to describe these things, because I didn’t want to rely on the sort of inspirational language or useless things. So I had to put it into practice, and as I put it into practice over the years and got a good result from it, in my own music and in teaching, it made more and more sense. And as it made more and more sense, I used that language more and more, and finally I decided it was a better thing to write it down than to keep repeating it and trying to remember it. So I worked for years to write it down and wrote many, many words in a few different attempts. And then finally last year, a course I had designed, called Properties of Free Music, was accepted at Longy School of Music and the New England Conservatory, so I had to get busy writing a course manual. So a lot of the book was used in a course, and as I used it, I proved in that laboratory setting that it made sense and that students could use it, so I expanded it and put it in the book.
Was it more difficult to codify this stuff than you thought when you started? After all, isn’t much of this usually learned by doing?
Well, you know, yes it’s difficult to approach this, because of a couple of things that are sort of implicit in your question. First, there’s the notion that it’s impossible to explain it. Second, there’s the idea that it’s wrong to attempt to explain it. Those two things combine to suggest that it shouldn’t be attempted. And again, I have students and people in my own groups and my own music to deal with, where I wanted to know what this really is. I want to move forward with knowledge, I don’t want to be blindly wandering around repeating things and thinking that it’s innovation, which I see all the time. I want to have as much understanding of this as someone would have about writing, or biology, or interpreting classical music. I think it’s a strange phenomenon in free music that people assume that the more naïve you are, the better situated you are to be creative. I think that’s absurd, frankly, and I think my book pretty much states that I feel that way. So on the one hand, that was a challenge in terms of approaching it, but the other thing was to figure out how to approach it to allow the open-ended elements of it, the legitimate open-ended elements of it, to remain. In other words, to make it something that wasn’t a method book, and wasn’t philosophy. Two things that have already been done, and haven’t really succeeded. And I’d say one other thing—when you approach this kind of thing, you’re addressing a couple of fairly established constituencies, people who think there’s a right way to do this. And when I first started, I attempted to appease them. And I wrote about half the book, and I felt really uncomfortable with the whole thing, so I reevaluated it all and came back with a different approach, and that’s the approach of using the term free music and really thinking of it as a meta-methodology, and to think in an ontological way, so that it’s more inclusive of things that perhaps are not included in the explanations given by those different constituencies, and also something that would include more information and leave the what, why and how of it still open-ended.
Right, but I was talking more about jazz and free music typically being transmitted in a sort of apprenticeship way…
I think that’s true to a point. And I think that all of those things are addressed in the book in simple ways. In the section of the book where I talk about approach, and I refer to synthesis, interpretation and invention, you know, those are things people do in free music. They synthesize existing material, they interpret existing material, and they interpret new material, and they invent new things which are then synthesized and interpreted. But it’s not like baseball. People can learn on their own. They might draw influence from a recording, they might draw influence from a conversation. It’s not like they have to go through some training process and be qualified as an acceptable individual. And I also address that in the book – that as it’s been taught like that, it’s become more academic, and as it’s become more academic, the expectation from that course of study is that the teachers will somehow tell you which of those materials are more appropriate for you to address as an artist. And I’ve made it pretty clear in the book that I think somebody can fall out of the sky, with no training, no connections to anyone in this, and come up with an equally brilliant invention as anyone we already know of. And the history of what I would call free music is full of people who are completely unqualified on those sorts of apprenticeship terms to arrive at the kind of solutions they arrived at. And that’s what we like about it. They’re not someone who’s gone up the ranks. They’re not someone who’s been credentialed to do anything. They might not know what is correct. And in the process of playing, you’re constantly having to deal with breaking your own rules about what you might think is right in order to solve the musical problem that’s presented to you. And I think that’s an inherent element of free music that’s usually erased when people try to address it in a written text or some type of method. And that’s why I refer to it as a meta-methodology, because it’s a way of observing and constructing a methodology rather than a way of following a methodology.
Your descriptions of methodology always seem to have a positive and a negative component—that is, you say in effect, you can do this thing or not do it, but either way, it counts as a strategy. Do you feel like moves you don’t make, notes you don’t play, are as important as the ones you do?
Put it this way—what I mean by that is, no matter what, something’s gonna happen that can be described by the person doing it, the person hearing it, or someone playing with them. And the idea that somehow any part of a deliberate action of making music is random, based on the ontological meta-methodology overview that you have to understand this thing, or any complex process in existence, means that somehow or other there’s something in it that’s formal, even if the intent is informality. Informality, in that regard, is a process. I choose to be informal. Well, there’s still going to be things that happen that are formal. The overall design may be informal, but that’s a design. If someone says I have no idea what I’m doing, well then, their design is to have no idea what they’re doing. But they’re still going to have to render that in musical technique. It’s not gonna be apparent if they can’t play it. If someone says I’m gonna do something totally original, and it comes out sounding like Charlie Parker, it’s an interpretation of Charlie Parker. So that’s really what I mean by that. The results are still going to have something that’s intentional. And if it’s intentional, it qualifies as a methodology, as a constructed approach to doing something. And I say that because you run across this idea in free music that intuition is not expressed with any type of intentional action. And at the same time you come across the idea that intuition is therefore invalid, which I disagree with. Or you come across the idea that a logical approach to playing music is somehow either inferior or superior to an intuitive approach. And I don’t think that’s true either. I think both of those things have been successful in helping people to form methodologies to be involved in free music. So I’m trying to validate both of them and say neither is superior because both of them require that the result be rendered in the way the music is played. And there’s no music that’s played that can’t be described by somebody. It’s not possible. Maybe we don’t understand it yet, but the goal is to understand it, and when we do we’ll understand it as a formal design.
Is this book intended to let people leap into free playing without first learning to improvise using standard blues or jazz structures? Do you feel that it’s possible to go from zero to free, so to speak, without an intervening period of more traditional playing?
Well, let’s talk first about the meaning of the term free, here. Because I make it very clear in the book that I don’t think there’s any such thing as free playing in terms of randomness. I think every action in music is some construction of an intentional action. I use the term free music to describe the fact that people make the determination about what they want to play, and decide whether or not they meet the criteria they’ve set for themselves. So I don’t believe that there’s a random way of playing. But the other part of your question suggests that the understanding of a harmonic structure like bebop or modal harmony or the blues, which is a harmonic structure using the 1, 4 and 5 chords of a major key, is required to make music that is constructed with a methodology. To me, the blues is a methodology. Bebop is a methodology, based on harmonic structure. The music I address in the book is not primarily based on harmonic structure but is based on another kind of structure, more often on a melodic structure, where the players make up a melody and process it in a different way. So the book explains how that can be done, and how it has been done. So I don’t think people have to be schooled or masterful in using harmonic structure to create their own music. I don’t think you have to know how to play the blues to be able to break away from the blues. It’s not an evolutionary process. They’re not necessarily connected, and if you know what people do when they create a free music methodology as an invention or interpretation or synthesis, then you’re gonna have a better path to that route without feeling compelled to follow the path that takes you through harmonic structure. But the other part of that is, it’s unnecessary for someone like me to deal with the description of a harmonic structure or the way to improvise in a harmonic structure, because there’s an enormous pedagogy of detailed information already done—a very well-functioning pedagogy to describe that. You can go anywhere, to any school, and learn how to use harmony to improvise. The other part of it, not at all. The part that I address in the book is dealt with in a few places, and I attempted from the point of view of teaching to actually lay down a template to expand on that kind of pedagogy. And that must remain open-ended. And that’s the challenge of the book.
You’ve played with Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton, so you have something of an insider’s perspective on their theories. But what about Ornette Coleman? Have you ever played with him, and if not, where does your understanding of harmolodics come from?
Well, more than anything—I played one time with Cecil Taylor, I made one recording and did one performance with Anthony Braxton, and I talked to both of them, and I played with Dewey Redman, who’s a harmolodic guy, and I played with Bern Nix, who’s a harmolodic guy. But really I’m a scholar of music. I’m a musician, and I read everything those guys have written about their music. I talked to loads and loads of people so that I would understand what’s going on with it. But more than anything, and I make this clear in the book, I have been coaching ensembles at a couple of the top conservatories in the country—at Longy School of Music at Bard College, but primarily at the New England Conservatory, coaching ensembles on how to perform those pieces. In the canon of what’s known as free jazz, I probably have a thousand compositions. I have compositions by Eric Dolphy, by Ornette, by Albert Ayler, by Anthony Braxton—charts that Braxton gave to me—by Sun Ra, by a lot of other people. And a lot of other bits and pieces by Cecil Taylor, and thousands of recordings…so the reason I know my information works is, that’s the information I use to get my students to perform that music. And they’ve been successful at performing that music with a degree of exactitude that’s pretty astonishing. So I’ve witnessed those words put into action, with the result being something that could really closely resemble Ornette Coleman or Anthony Braxton or Cecil Taylor. And so that’s why I use those words. I’ve been using them, coaching ensembles for 10-11 years and doing private lessons for the same amount of time. I know that stuff works ’cause I see it put into action.
Are there any other composers whose theories you feel are important, but who you chose not to include in the book, like Henry Threadgill or Steve Coleman or Bill Dixon?
Yes. I mean, there’s lots of people I didn’t deal with because for one reason or another, I think that—without eliminating them—there’s enough material in the example methodologies that I gave to help anybody to understand things that are associated with that. So Bill Dixon’s work—he doesn’t have that much recorded work, and there aren’t scores that are available for people to perform. Not really for Cecil, either. The point of it being seminal methodologies, as I described them, is that they’ve impacted the way communities of musicians have decided to improvise. In other words, there are people associated with Bill Dixon who’ve basically followed the methodology of Cecil Taylor, and adjusted the particulars in their relationship with Bill Dixon. That’s not to diminish the particulars, it’s just means that their primary methodology that they abide by, I would say, is Unit Structures, from my experience of playing with them and knowing where they come from and all that.
It’s different with Threadgill, and I actually had a phone conversation with him before I did the questionnaire section of the book, thinking I was going to have Henry in there. In fact, I’ve known Henry for a long time, but we’ve never really discussed his methodology, because he doesn’t want to give it up. And I respect that. I told him, I wasn’t going to ask him questions to mine how he does stuff, because he has a right to protect that if he wants to. But he didn’t want to give it up. And he’s told me that a lot of people ask him how to do things. And I’ve been studying his music since the ’70s; I know a lot about his music. And some of my groups perform his music as well. And he told me some things about his music that made it clear to me that for a long period of time, most of his music was based on a major-minor harmonic system and counterpoint. To his credit, he’s so inventive by using that that it sounds different than that. So anyway, I decided he didn’t need to be in my book and I didn’t think it was necessary to have him there—somebody else can include him. But he’s also associated with the AACM, he’s an AACM artist, and some of those things are addressed in the Tri-Axiom section. Anthony Braxton utilizes some of the most unique and particular elements associated with the AACM. And since so much has been written about the AACM and it’s such a broad thing, I don’t want to approach the AACM. But mainly I don’t want to because I don’t believe the AACM is a seminal methodology. To me, it’s a broad community of people who use Unit Structures and use harmolodics in hybrid ways, use European free improvisation methodologies, for lack of a better term, or things associated with European classical music, and synthesize a lot of those things and hybridize a lot of those things. So to me they’re not as succinct as the ones that are presented there. And that’s the main reason anybody who isn’t there, isn’t there. I hone it down to the purest version of what I think is a seminal methodology. And if I left anything out, it’s because my concern isn’t to be a completist. I’m not a historian. I use them as examples of how people have constructed methodologies in the hopes that whoever reads it will understand that these guys invented their music out of the process of synthesis and interpretation, and that someone else might do that, and that as listeners, they don’t have to believe that these are somehow completely unconnected to other things. That through those processes, everything is connected. It’s not a lineage, it’s an ontology. So Cecil Taylor draws from classical piano, from Messaien and Rachmaninoff, and African music and Billie Holiday—he’s synthesizing whole objects, he’s interpreting parts of them, and he’s inventing something out of that. And that applies to every single one of those figures represented in those example methodologies.
I’m curious about how you chose to deal with graphic notation. You mention it, but no real concrete explanation of how a player should respond to it is offered, and as a non-musician, I was kind of curious how a musician should respond to a score sheet that has, say, a red triangle and a squiggle and a percentage symbol on it.
Yeah, I know what you mean, and I did grapple with that, because there are so many renditions of that, some of which are meant to be mnemonic devices, things that just sort of imply some kinds of choices, and some of the graphic symbols that exist are very specific, and need a kind of legend to describe them. Some of them are in common usage—some graphic symbols signify things that are accepted and commonly used things that emerge from contemporary classical scores, and I have one book that’s different graphic symbols to describe different kinds of effects and extended techniques that musicians would use, that have been written into scores. It’s a subject in and of itself. There’s also a world of aleatoric composition that I didn’t really address that’s very much involved with that type of scoring, and I think just by saying graphic scores, if you were writing a graphic score, you might create a symbol that suggests some type of action. There isn’t a rule about it, really. If you did a red triangle and a squiggle, you could say “I don’t know, do whatever you want with it,” or you could say “This red triangle means this specific thing, and this squiggle means this specific thing.” And so the symbol just describes—it’s a sort of shorthand to describe your explanation. And there isn’t any strict rule about how anybody should do that. So that’s a separate book, if somebody wants to write it. And I know a couple of people—one person who’s very qualified to write that book is Anthony Coleman, because he teaches that type of composition and is very good at it. And rather than do a lame, less informed version of it than people I know are more qualified to do it, I just left it alone. It’s mentioned in my text as a way people convey information, not as a methodology. The methodology of the music I’m interested in is operational, in that it informs the way people carry on after they deal with any kind of score at all. Maybe they don’t have any. So that’s a different area of music.
The discussion of European free improvisation was surprising to me, because it almost seems to fly in the face of everything else you talk about in the book, as far as methodology.
Why do you say that?
Because it seems to be built on rejectionism—we will not do this, we will not do that…
But based on what I just said, isn’t that a methodology?
Oh yeah, definitely. But it’s like a mirror-image methodology, in a way.
Yeah, but I think with every example, we’re talking about people trying their damnedest, with their highest level of creativity, to not duplicate things that they know already exist. And so if they can do something that’s wholly counter to what already exists, that may be an even higher level of invention. At the least, it’s going to draw from different information, and end up with a different result. And again, if you approach this kind of music as a linear tradition, you say “Oh, they’re not playing the blues,” or “They’re not soulful,” or this or that. “They don’t fit the tradition.” Well, you’re right. You wouldn’t even discuss those people. But I don’t look at it like that. I think that European free improvisation has attempted to have an operational methodology inform its practice, and to me that’s exactly the same as Ornette Coleman. But their operational methodology is different. It has different materials, the construction of it is different, so the results are different. But I don’t think the intention, from a creative standpoint, is different. If I did, it wouldn’t be in the book. I think there are people who might align themselves in terms of their case with liking one of those things, but my interest is in the future-forward version of this, not this past/static version. I don’t care what people like, they can like whatever they want to like. But I’m trying to explain this in the broadest, most explicit sense I can without being narrow-minded.
It just struck me as like, you deal with all this stuff and then you say, “Oh, by the way, here’s this other thing that flies in the face of everything else I’ve talked about.” Similar goals, but a completely oppositional methodology.
I don’t think I say that in the book. I think what I say, pretty clearly, that some of the things I just mentioned about linear tradition and the aesthetics that govern some pretty powerful periods within free music naturally create either out of respect or opposition it creates another need. I also mention that maybe at one point people felt challenged by that, because it didn’t seem to pay the proper respect to parts of that history, but since then, there’s been a great cross-pollination between people. You have Evan Parker playing with William Parker, you have Peter Brötzmann playing with Eric Revis. I think that this is the idea that this is a methodology, and people are going to go into a space where the signals that make up that methodology are going to be put into action, and pull all that together so that especially young people and new listeners can see the unity of those differences, not the division.
I think that as free music, there’s gonna be things that don’t sound the same as other things we might like. And it takes tremendous creativity to be able to invent something that’s new. And yeah, it might not fit the orthodoxy that we’re told we’re always supposed to follow, but the reward is stepping away from the idea that we should follow an orthodoxy. And I think it’s important to say that, because this is becoming all so doctrinaire as its being controlled by people as certain parts of it are dwindling away. Meanwhile, out in the world, there’s people doing all kinds of interesting things, trying to figure out where the hell they fit in. “My music doesn’t swing,” or “My music isn’t about religion,” or “My music isn’t about chance operations, so where do I fit?” You go, well, maybe you fit here. Tell us how you fit. Tell me how you describe it. And again, I deal with young people who really want to do this and really want to have their own voice in this, and don’t feel like someone else’s voice or someone else’s methodology will work. So they have to break a few eggs. And I guess what I’m saying in the book is, if you don’t break any eggs, you’re not really involved in free music. If you’re not gonna piss somebody off by doing what you wanna do, you’re not gonna get anywhere in this. And I think that’s true of everybody mentioned in the book, or everybody associated with what’s mentioned in the book.
That’s my view of it. I have a pretty wide view of this. I think it’s one of the reasons that, as a musician, people can’t pin me down. They don’t know why I do this. “Why are you playing that way? I thought you were like that.” I’ve never been like that. I don’t think my generation is really like that. I think we got sorta sucked into the tired old idea of what tradition was and then we had to battle it out about which version of that tradition—it’s like which sect of which orthodox religion are we gonna fight against. I think it’s ridiculous. That’s not how I approach music at all. I don’t care at all about that. I’m interested in doing this till the day I die, and inventing the whole time, if I can. That’s why this book had to be written. That’s why the conversation has to change—so we’re talking about making things, not following things. Not doing it “right,” doing it with intention. If there’s a tradition, it’s a tradition of innovation. And we have to lay down a more specific explanation of how that’s actually worked, rather than saying, “Well, the tradition is innovation, so if you’re not innovating, you’re nothing.” Well, maybe you interpret something with some innovation? Maybe you just interpret things really well. What’s wrong with that? I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think it has to stop being a question of how much we’ve sinned against the commandments implied by these traditions, and it should be more about people experiencing new things so they can move forward.