New England-based guitarist Joe Morris is best known for playing fleet, clean lines that combine bebop speed and precision with free jazz adventurousness. He’s been focused on that approach as long as I’ve known him; the first time I interviewed him, almost 15 years ago, he told me, “I can understand why people are into really extreme subcultures of metal. I understand that a lot of people like [saxophonist] David Ware because he has a lot of power in what he does…But what I try to tell people is, if you want power, I play an electric guitar. I can go buy more power than any saxophone player on the planet for 1000 dollars. What I’m trying to do is the anti-power. I don’t want power. I don’t want that kind of energy. I want subtlety. I want melody, I want energy, I want swing, I want dynamics.”

When Morris picks up the bass, he’s even more restrained, concentrating on being a powerful, but unobtrusive, accompanist. By pursuing these two paths for decades, he’s built a sterling reputation in the out-jazz community, making scores of albums as a leader and sideman since the early ’80s. But unsurprisingly, given his age and background, he’s definitely got a side that’s aware of hard rock and metal, and in the last few years, he’s started to move away from the clean tone and precisely picked melodies that have defined his career to date, and explore noisier, more aggressive territory with some fairly impressive groups and collaborations.

The Spanish Donkey is a trio that features Morris on guitar, keyboardist Jamie Saft, and drummer Mike Pride. Named, in almost John Zorn-ish fashion, for a medieval torture device, their debut album, XYX, was released on Northern Spy in 2011. It features two long tracks—the 37-minute “Mid-Evil” and the 22-minute title piece. As the album begins, Morris’s guitar is able to pierce the dense roar of Saft’s bank of keyboards, but the longer the piece progresses, the more overwhelming it becomes. When he’s clearly audible again, around the 20-minute mark of “Mid-Evil,” he’s attacking the strings in an almost No Wave fashion, offering bursts of barbed-wire notes as Pride batters the kit in a style that blends Roy Haynes and Dave Witte. The second track is just as powerful as the first. The album is a rough, exhausting listen, but it’s exhilarating at the same time. [Buy XYX from Amazon]

Watch a full set from January 2013:

Morris is also a member of Slobber Pup, a quartet also featuring Saft, bassist Trevor Dunn (of Fantômas and John Zorn‘s Moonchild) and drummer Balázs Pándi, a maniac equally versed in out-jazz and extreme rock and metal (he’s performed and/or recorded with Merzbow, Mats Gustafsson, and The Blood of Heroes, among others). That group’s music, as heard on debut CD Black Aces, released by RareNoise in 2013, is at times slightly more concise than that of the Spanish Donkey, but no less furious. The album’s five tracks kick off with the 27-minute “Accuser,” a wild storm that pits Morris’s ultra-distorted guitar against Saft’s blaring post-Jon Lord organ, with Dunn a nearly subterranean throb and Pándi’s drumming a crazed but still somehow disciplined metallic eruption. Totally improvised, the music on Black Aces sounds like an ultra-intense metal band jamming at soundcheck before playing a concert that will shatter the skulls of everyone in the audience. [Buy Black Aces from Amazon]

Watch a full set from April 2013 (warning: loud):

Morris also recently bridged the gap between his earlier, more traditionally “jazz” recordings and his recent experiments with rockish extremity on One, an album featuring saxophonist Ivo Perelman and Pándi on drums. Another RareNoise release, it’s a fully improvised session—his first playing electric bass. As always when he plays bass, he keeps to the background, but he does a good job of locking in with Pándi and bolstering Perelman’s Fire Music-derived bluster, giving the disc a feel somewhere between Albert Ayler‘s Spiritual Unity and PainKiller‘s Guts of a Virgin. [Buy One from Amazon]

This trio was scheduled to perform in Brooklyn last month, but there’s no footage on YouTube, so here’s a stream of “Freedom,” a track from the album:


It seems to me that Morris’s attitude toward music and reasons for making it haven’t changed, but his willingness to work in modes he avoided in the past definitely has. In a 2012 interview, he told me, “I have a pretty wide view of [free music]. 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.”

Phil Freeman

One Comment on “The Metal Side Of Joe Morris

  1. Pingback: The Metal Side Of Joe Morris | Avant Music News

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