Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Guitars and All That Jazz Allows

Over the last century, the music we now call jazz has gone from a social music for the lower classes and society's fringes to enshrinement as "America's music" while branching into various styles, defining and redefining itself and its signal features, winning and sometimes losing audiences, engaging intellects and passions, inspiring dancers, singers, listeners and musicians "all over this world" in the words of the spiritual I'm currently listening to this very moment of writing. Jazz is an umbrella term, not an easily defined music, and some examples sound at times mutually exclusive of one another--the connection between Cecil Taylor's highly percussive free jazz piano style and the introspective lyricism of Chet Baker's trumpet is not immediately obvious to most listeners, even though both men were born in 1929, came of musical age in the 1950s and the wake of Charlie Parker and other bebop innovators. As I play neither trumpet nor piano (well, I don't play piano in public anyway), I will not attempt to describe the connection beyond asserting they represent two schools of jazz romanticism, two ways of swinging, and a fundamental commitment to improvisation.

My first real experience of jazz was hearing Miles Davis late at night on WBCN-FM in Boston, the title cut from his seminal 1969 album Bitches Brew. It sounded more like caged animals in a fight to the death than music to ears obsessed with Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks. Memorable, but frightening--if this was music being played by the coolest dj (Eric in the Evening) on the coolest station, I was a long way from cool myself. Cool was all I had going for me at 15, in my own mind if no one else's, so I saw I had some work ahead of me. Partly guided by intuition and partly by what was more available on radio in those days, I set about listening to rhythm & blues and blues music, trying to understand why black music sounded as it did, how it related to the rock and roll I loved. The early years of Rolling Stone magazine helped a lot, and names started to accumulate in my head for investigation: Miles Davis, Pharaoh Sanders, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman--all trumpet and saxophone players as it happened, and some of the leading (and competing) exponents of jazz in the 1960s. My ears and mind were stretching out to accommodate these new sounds. Just as I had done with rock and blues, I started reading books and album jackets and noticing names--Coltrane had played with Davis, Shepp with Coltrane, Cherry with both Coleman and Coltrane. Davis thought Coleman was bad, but Davis had played with Charlie Parker, and Coleman was supposed to be influenced by Parker. Mystery piled on top of mystery in my ears. I didn't get it. Jazz was supposed to "swing" but sometimes all I heard were the caterwauling beasts, everyone blasting at one another or in totally different directions, and no beat I could determine. I needed help.

I got some in college. Much to my dad's dismay, I took a course in the history of jazz my sophomore year. I had no idea this would be such a turning point in my life, just wanted to satisfy a certain curiosity about what I was hearing versus what was often claimed for this music. The course included much listening and reading, and the professor gave an accessible overview of music theory and musical forms in the process. I learned about scales and chords and the piano keyboard, about ragtime, spirituals and blues and their role in the birth of jazz, about 2/4 and 4/4 time and syncopation and triplets and polyrhythms. I learned to recognize a blues or an aaba song form by ear. We studied the early work of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and I grew to love trumpet players and saxophone players as much as any of my rock guitar gods.

When the semester reached the swing era, some profound connection took hold in my brain. I mean this literally. My nervous system changed, my thinking changed, in some ways replicating the change jazz worked upon America starting around 1930 at the dawn of the Swing Era--which was the twilight of the "Jazz Age" of the post-WWI, pre-Depression years. Ellington had been accelerating his rhythmic drive--his 1931 "Rocking in Rhythm" is practically a manifesto of a new kind of physical liberation that, once unleashed, was unstoppable and culminated eventually in rock and roll (among many other things). Benny Goodman understood probably better than any white American what was taking place--he quickly began working with the great arranger Fletcher Henderson and some of the leading black musicians of the day, initially in the studio but then in groundbreaking public performance. By 1939, Goodman, through the efforts of John Hammond, Sr., hit the musical mother lode when he hired the young Oklahoma guitarist Charlie Christian.

Goodman had already taken some brilliant black jazzmen into his band, such as vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, pianist Teddy Wilson. He'd recorded with Bessie Smith. He could swing and play the blues with great authority. Like many musicians of his day, he'd been somewhat skeptical of the electric guitar, the most recent innovation on an instrument that had long been relegated to solo playing, rhythm parts, duo and trio playing even in the hands of great improvisers like blues/jazz pioneer Lonnie Johnson and the white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang. The Dopyera Brothers had invented the acoustic resonator guitar in the 1920s to get more volume, Gibson had produced larger and larger archtop guitars that began to replace the banjo in rhythm sections, and Adolphe Rickenbacker had developed electrical lap guitars played Hawaiian style which began to interest blues and country musicians as well as a few jazz players. Floyd Smith recorded "Floyd's Guitar Blues" on such a lap guitar with big band accompaniment. The Argentine guitarist Oscar Aleman was playing swing jazz in Paris on a resonator guitar, contemporary with Django Reinhardt's gypsy swing on his distinctive Selmer acoustic guitar. The guitar was maturing into a vital soloing voice in jazz. Another mid-west jazzman, trombonist/arranger Eddie Durham, occasionally doubled on guitar for Count Basie. Durham was one of the earliest to go electric, and the younger Christian was right behind him.

The 1930s were a great period of cultural flux, spurred by economic hardship, political tensions, and technological advances, and music was a microcosm for much of the dynamism in the world at large, as it often is. Young men like Christian, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie were pushing themselves and their instruments into new rhythms and tempi and approaches to harmony and improvisation, and older and younger musicians responded, some skeptically, some with great delight. Christian had gained a following playing in the mid-west; joining Goodman brought him to national attention as soloist in the most popular band of the day, touring coast to coast, recording, appearing on radio broadcasts (many of which were recorded and comprise about half of Christian's recorded legacy). Christian had some fine tutors, had picked up some valuable pointers from Durham, but like many artists at the cusp of technological innovations, he had precious few direct predecessors on his instrument and looked to saxophone and trumpet players for musical inspiration. In particular, he loved the playing of Lester Young, the tenor saxophone star of Count Basie's band. Young was the most advanced swing musician of his generation, and Christian took notice, learning his solos and applying his rhythmic and harmonic audacity to guitar.

Goodman had two general ways of working, his full orchestra of around 20 pieces and smaller groups of three to seven players. Christian was a featured soloist in both settings, but the small groups in particular were where his playing can be best appreciated. I was completely taken with the sound of these small groups, no less than when I first heard the Beatles. The guitar made perfect sense alongside clarinet, vibes, piano. Goodman kept adding players, too--the trumpet great Cootie Williams took a leave from Duke Ellington to play with Goodman. Hampton left to lead his own band, and Goodman's tenor man George Auld became a small-group regular. Wilson left the fold, and Goodman would use Count Basie when he wasn't touring with his own band. Goodman even brought in Lester Young and trumpeter Buck Clayton as well as Basie and his rhythm section for a small group recording session, which must have been a dream-come-true for Christian. The music these men made together is some of the most exuberantly joyous and creative collaborations I've ever heard--they seem to bring out the best in one another whether in the studio or on the air.

I began teaching myself guitar while in college, but I stuck with folk/blues songs even as I devoted much of my time and meager resources to collecting and listening to jazz records. I did listen to Christian, especially on blues numbers, tried to get a feel for the rhythm overall and how he'd place his notes in relation to the pulse. I listened to Lester Young, both with Basie and his later recordings from the '40s and '50s. I went to Ellington's work, for Cootie Williams, Bubber Miley, Ray Nance on trumpets, and Johnny Hodges on sax. I followed the revolution in swing that yielded bebop and Charlie Parker and the young Miles Davis. It was starting to make sense, this thing they called jazz. Sadly, Christian didn't make it to the revolution he foreshadowed, dying of tuberculosis in 1942. His entire recorded output covers about two years time, 1939-1941. I bought a book of his guitar transcriptions shortly after college, and despite my limits as reader and player, I used it as best I could. I still work with transcriptions of his solos as one of my practice routines, but I'm not a jazz musician by any means. Jazz-influenced, certainly, but I'm just not skilled enough to play jazz.

It's not for lack of interest. I love all eras of jazz, and before I graduated from college, I'd found a way into the more modern sounds of Miles Davis. My term paper for my jazz history course was on rhythmic developments in the music of Miles Davis, and I'd picked up his album IN A SILENT WAY in part because it listed a guitarist, John McLaughlin, in the credits. McLaughlin is a big part of the hypnotic, meditative quality of that album, and his guitar tone is clean, his playing relaxed in the steady grooves set up by drummer Tony Williams. I could hear the connection to Christian's work of 30 years earlier, even if Davis had streamlined the harmonic variation of pop song chords and blues changes into a few scales and chords. So, this jazz thing was good for guitars after all. And McLaughlin was on a few other Davis records, including that monument of aural intimidation, BITCHES BREW. I took another listen to that double album, and while its ferocity hadn't changed, my brain had. More drummers, long 20 minute songs, bass clarinet solos, three pianos, trumpet, soprano sax--so much to hear and absorb, and yet I began to understand the music as a cooperative conversation, not competing but complementary voices. McLaughlin's even-toned guitar wove among the instruments, soloing here and there, playing chords behind other solos--one song is even named after him. At a party my junior year, someone put A TRIBUTE TO JACK JOHNSON, the third Davis lp to feature McLaughlin, on the record player, and the room exploded with dancing. McLaughlin has a much more aggressive style on this 1970 recording, distorted, bluesy, funky, and Davis by this point was freely drawing on James Brown and playing to rock audiences. This is dance music, but so was Benny Goodman's. The dancing was different, but the palpable excitement of the music, the joy approaching ecstatic abandon, was the same.

I started to follow McLaughlin. He recorded an album with former Davis sideman Wayne Shorter, SUPERNOVA, which also featured guitarist Sonny Sharrock (who played uncredited on JACK JOHNSON). This was closer to free jazz than jazz-rock or what would soon be called fusion music. The song structures seemed limited to a melodic theme and a tempo, and then everything was up for grabs and potentially part of the conversation. Then McLaughlin formed his Mahavishnu Orchestra, started playing a double-neck Gibson, and came to play a concert at my college. I bought a ticket, sure I was going to hear jazz, not sure exactly what that would mean this time.

Five men came on stage--electric bass, violin, keyboards, drums, and McLaughlin with that Gibson. After a few moments silence, drummer Bill Cobham hit a huge gong several times, and McLaughlin started softly picked shimmering chords on the 12-string neck. The bass and keyboards entered, the violin added some tremelo riffing, and on some unspoken cue, the volume quickly swelled and the music soared with startling grandeur unlike anything I'd yet heard, the jagged beautiful theme "Birds of Fire" from the band's new album. It was loud but not chaotic, strange but not inaccessible, and utterly transformative for me as listener. McLaughlin had taken the interest in scales and open improvisation pioneered by Coltrane and Davis, the volume and directness of Jimi Hendrix, the the complex meters and meditative quality of Indian music, into his guitar.

He was not the only musician of this moment of cultural synthesis and innovation, but he did embody something for guitarists in particular, both jazz players schooled in swing and bebop and Christian's followers such as Barney Kessell, Tal Farlowe, Bill D'Arango, and the ambitious rock improvisers in the wakes of Michael Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman. Certain musicians seem to personify a complete approach to music. A jazz virtuoso like Joe Pass or Lenny Breau, capable of improvising through the most difficult chord changes with deceptive grace and swing, can sometimes sound almost too good, too perfect at realizing the possibilities of a song. This is only in the seeming, of course, and is more a matter of the listener's awe than the performer's perfection--Art Tatum is the only jazz musician I know who was ever affectionately called "God" the way rock fans dubbed Eric Clapton. Still, by summing up much of what has preceded them, virtuosi can sometimes distract from innovation, experiment, even the fortuitous failures that refine fresh forms of genius. Each generation has to be willing to break with the past as well as honor its genius, or art and life cease to grow. For me, McLaughlin was pointing the way into unexplored territory, new sounds and rhythms and possible music.

Sometimes you can feel these moments as they occur, and sometimes it takes years to understand a new genesis. When I was 18, 19, 20 years old and devoted to my musical obsessions, I never imagined I'd actually call myself a musician one day. I wanted to write poetry; guitar was what I did when no one was around to listen. Unknown to me, I had a soul brother out there, hearing some of the same sounds, feeling some of the same excitement, but with a crucial difference: he was going to be a musician and in fact already was on that path. His name was, and still is, Joe Morris. He was growing up in near New Haven, Connecticut, playing guitar in teenage rock bands, and getting more and more curious about sounds and how they might be organized and things he did not yet understand but could feel about music and about life. Joe was, shall we say, an independent mind from his early years, with an uncompromising temperament that sometimes brought challenges along with rewards. His early guitar playing was in the aggressive blues-rock tradition; he loved the Allman Brothers and their jazzy improvisational approach. He loved school far less, and it led to some "quiet time" for Joe in a school for children reluctant to attend school, but he credits this period with one of the key insights in his emotional and artistic life. Staring out the window one day, he saw a flock of black birds flocking around a tree, a swirl of collective flight and landings, no single form predominant, no bird in any other bird's way, a continual conversation of independent beings forming an intuitive and beautiful whole.

This was around the same time I had a revelatory moment about poetry and language, through my listening to jazz, most specifically the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. I felt that in the example of Coleman and his great quartet of the 1950s, I could catch a glimpse of what I might accomplish as a writer. Just as free jazz makes a commitment to improvisation--that any note or beat might be incorporated into a conversation and gradually cohering statement, without pre-existing forms or conditions--a poem might free itself from pre-existing intentions to mean something particular, to fulfill a traditional form, and take music as its compositional model. Any word might come next, any phrase might pause and let another intervene, any thought might enter the uncoiling expression. I was discovering something already posited to a degree by Jack Kerouac in the 1950s (not coincidentally around the period of Coleman's ascendancy), but in my own terms toward my own expressive ends.

Joe Morris quit high school; I graduated from my Ivy League college with a degree in English. There was (and still is) a small but vital jazz scene in New Haven, and he was listening, learning to play, taking the train to New York City to go to jazz clubs where Shepp and Sanders were pursuing the "New Thing" they'd pioneered, and where they inspired a new generation of free improvisers in the then bohemian Soho loft-jazz scene. Like Christian studying Lester Young, Joe took a serious listen to Archie Shepp's tenor saxophone playing and began absorbing the harmonic freedom and new ways of swinging into his guitar playing. Very fortunately for me, Joe moved to the Boston area, started playing around town with other experimental musicians and documenting his work on his own record label, Riti Records. I moved to Cambridge after college, started writing poetry in earnest if not in achievement, and going to hear music as I could afford. I can't quite recall the first time I heard Joe, which is a bit odd for me as I tend to remember such things, but I do remember where I heard about him--"Joe Morris is the guy," I heard in my favorite record store, Bojo's Used Records in Harvard Square, said. "He's making the new music." This was in 1977. Bojo himself said it, and Bojo was seriously cool, a gentle-voiced hippie interested in everything musical. That was recommendation enough for me.

Boston has the benefit of several schools with major music education programs, attracting young musicians as students, older ones as faculty, and attendant audiences. I caught up with Joe Morris in one of the small clubs then open in Boston or Cambridge--quite possibly the 1369 Jazz Club in Inman Square near where I lived in Cambridge. I quickly became a fan. He was indeed doing something new, playing a black Gibson Les Paul with a plain, clean tone in a classic swing-to-bop sonority, but unleashing notes that leapt and stuttered and chattered all over the guitar in phrases of completely unpredictable lengths and contours, with a bassist and drummer equally involved in the maelstrom. This wasn't jazz-rock or fusion music, a style that had quickly lost its edge and become more of a commercial genre than experimental cauldron. Nothing about it said "rock and roll" or "blues" in an obvious way, and it didn't swing in the post-bop modernist rhythm either. The music was truly free, spontaneous, conversational, collective, and experimental, risking and inviting chaos and finding new order by doing so. Here was the musical correlative to what I felt must be possible in poetry, although in writing I was a solo act--my "bandmates" were the poets I loved from every age who inspired me to write and whose attentions I strove to command in the realm of imagination. I wanted poems to be conversations with John Keats and Wallace Stevens and W. B. Yeats and their poems, as spontaneous as any passionate utterance on matters of the heart and spirit. I didn't want to sound like my predecessors, but to add something new to their dialogue with eternity.

Life is awfully funny when it's not killing you alive. By a process too complicated to recount here, I became friends with Joe--we were living close to one another in Cambridge--and we spent some wonderful times in a long and fascinating periodic conversation of our own about creativity, imagination, and life. I began to get my poems published, work that directly drew on those shared views about what excited and inspired us to be artists. Joe's example of relentless creative curiosity gave me a lot of courage to follow my own impulses. He didn't often explain his own music, but he loved to talk about music and musicians that inspired him--Cecil Taylor but also Charley Patton, Archie Shepp but also Bob Dylan's first album. As much as I love Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, even Charlie Christian, it has been the depth of Joe Morris's vision of music and the breadth of his creative efforts that have helped me most in my own struggle to be an artist, first as poet, then as musician. It would be impossible in a single blog to summarize his musical activities over the last 30 years or the respect and praise he has earned for his work. Trust me when I say he has gotten the best reviews from the best jazz critics I've ever read--Gary Giddins compared his playing to both Cecil Taylor and Bill Monroe in the same review. That is pretty good company in my book, and it should be in yours.

Joe Morris music is fundamentally spiritual. A lot of study and practice are behind it, and watching him play a squirrelly sequence of 32nd notes with immaculate swing in a groove of his own devising is technically astounding, but never the point of his play. As he has explained to me enough times that I can hear his voice doing so as I write, his music is about African spirituality transplanted and nurtured in America, about the family of music and humanity, and the redemption of suffering through sacrifice and good work. "I don't really play jazz," he sometimes says, "I play something new that is about jazz, that relates to jazz." He has done so in various contexts, most often in small groups of three to five players, sometimes with larger groups, sometimes in solo or duo settings. His recorded catalogue is now vast, spanning several decades and labels including his own Riti Records, Hat-Hut, Soul Note, Knitting Factory Records, 4 A. D., ECM, and other labels. Google him for details. I want to note three of his cds before I wind down to a coda.

SYMBOLIC GESTURE, a 1994 release on Soul Note 12104-2, is a trio recording with Nate McBride on acoustic bass and Curt Newton on drums. Joe excels in this setting, and the familiar trio format might be a good starting place for listeners new to fiercely improvised and open music. Joe has many ways of organizing a song, from writing out all the parts to completely improvised forays, and he (and his chosen bandmates) are such accomplished improvisers that it's not always easy to tell what is scored and what is spontaneous. The opening track, "Invisible," sounds like a group improvisation, and is a marvelous example of his modest tonality and balanced musical conception. For the first five minutes or so, all three musicians let the phrases pour out. The guitar begins with short phrases in abrupt rhythms, McBride's bass digging in with more continuous lines, Curt Newton rolling out beats all over his kit with a swing a bit like Elvin Jones at times, Ed Blackwell at others, not "keeping" time in a traditional sense but swinging a percussive approach to melodic improvisation. The guitar phrases get longer and the drums respond with shorter phrasing. At about 5 minutes, Joe starts using dissonances, plucking and scraping the strings a bit but still swinging the music. He returns to some long single string runs, then drops out and bass and drums converse for a minute or so. The bass lines relate to the rhythmic variety and drive of the drumming but also the melodic contours of the guitar as it rejoins the ensemble. They pick up the 3-way conversation about what it can mean to swing without the net of a 4/4 pulse and song form, and ease the music down to a gentle but no less swinging coda. In the 9 minutes, I don't hear a single chord from the guitar, or predictable phrase or jazz cliché. "Do you ever bend a note?" I once asked Joe. He had to think for a minute before answering. "No, not really," he said. His melodic conception is pointillist, his improvisations fundamentally rhythmic, and the security of his technique gives him great freedom. For all this pushing the edge of avant-garde improvisational music, so often what results is directly as emotional as Charley Patton or Son House, as collectively coherent as pygmy ritual chants.

"Invisible" leads directly into the second song, "Lowell's House." Here is a sterling example of Joe's thematic writing, bluesy without being an overt blues, and building on a classic guitar trio sound without just reiterating it. The title summons one of Joe's most important musical mentors, the visionary Lowell Davidson who took Joe under his wing in the early years in Boston. Davidson was an experimental pianist aligned with Ornette Coleman who recorded a single album on ESP, dying at age 49 in 1990. "Lowell's House" is a haunting tribute with a lovely mid-tempo swing under the theme that opens up as the musicians begin to elaborate. It's a theme/variation/theme approach to improvisation with some surprising turns throughout the 14 minutes. Newton never loses the beat even when he overtly leaves it or stops playing altogether. McBride plays a throaty bass solo with great delicacy and feeling, and when Joe comes back he again summons blues values without blues lines. The final theme sounds more celebratory than mournful, rising heavenward with a 3-note final motif. If music is the place where the soul of man never dies, as Sam Phillips said when he first heard Howling Wolf, this song carries at least part of a great soul in it as well as the temperaments of its three musicians. I think this is a clear expression of the African spirituality in Joe's music, a testimony of the ancestor's continued place of honor. The remaining 3 songs all hold similar virtues and unique pleasures, jazz without being "jazz." You can get a sample of Joe in trio flight here from a Toronto show.

What next? So hard to choose. There's a great solo acoustic cd, NO VERTIGO, that will thrill fans of Derek Bailey and Paco De Lucia alike. There are several cds featuring the fine alto sax of Rob Brown. One such cd from 1999 also includes Karen Borca on bassoon and Andrea Parkins on accordion and sampler--MANY RINGS on Knitting Factory Records. The sound here is headlong collective improvisation, no boundaries but the imaginations of the players involved. Brown has a rich tone and a fleet mind, and I hear more Charlie Parker than Ornette Coleman in his sound, but Brown follows his own muse and lyricism. Jimmy Lyons' work with Cecil Taylor also comes to mind, and while no one in the group is playing with the huge range Taylor demanded from the piano, the scale of improvisational interplay seems rooted in his work. Free jazz accordion? Of course. Why not? If you can't go there, it isn't really free. The opening cut, "Drawn to the Magnet," establishes an ensemble sound, with each musician asserting his or her voice within the whole. Then the music opens up a little more on the title song "Many Rings" with Brown beginning solo and then leading the group, trading phrases with Borca's bassoon. The guitar hangs back a bit, then joins the fun. Don't wait for a regular beat with music like this, just listen to heartbeat in each voice--it's there, I promise. "Chapel Level" begins with keyboard sampling, horns quickly asserting themselves, guitar lurking in the background in its lower registers. Brown goes for some barnyard squawking reminiscent of the oldest recorded jazz, then slow mournful slurs--his sonic invention throughout is bracing. "Situation to Be In" starts with Brown in the upper register and a kind of yearning lyricism that guitar, bassoon and accordion pick up--this is a ballad with an edge that gets keener as it goes, the guitar defining it with sudden acceleration. Music like this certainly defies description, which is exactly why I'm trying to do so. I feel the same exuberance and pulsing joy as when I hear the Goodman Sextet tearing through "Sheik of Araby." The 8 cuts are smartly organized for maximum pleasures, variable lengths and pacing, challenges presented to one another and to each musician's own self-invention. Karen Borca is a revelatory bassoonist. This is Joe Morris music at its most uncompromising and yet most accessible level. The music soars and sputters and ruminates and never takes time for granted. You will not confuse it with anyone or anything else.

Lastly, but not finally, I want to cite ELOPING WITH THE SUN (Riti CD 007), recorded in 2001 with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake. Joe plays banjo and banjo-ukelele, while Parker plays the zintir, a Moroccan two-stringed bass lute, and Drake plays a frame drum. Parker is a stalwart of the downtown NY jazz scene, and long-time associate of Joe and Rob Brown, veteran of Cecil Taylor, and important band leader. Drake is never at a loss for things to do, either, and widely hailed as one of the finest drummers on the cutting edge of jazz. Each musician takes up an instrument far simpler than those they ordinarily play. The sound is primitive, the grooves seriously hypnotic. Joe's banjo is strung with nylon strings for a far more African sound than that already African instrument usually holds. If you need music for your séance, consider throwing this cd in the changer. Just be sure you want the ghosts to come, because they will. On the song "Dawn Son" they seem to be playing the instruments, discussing among themselves how curious those humans are at times. Zintir begins, joined by rapid banjo runs, calmed and the pushed by the drums. Banjo and zintir initiate "Dream" together, the drums waiting to join for a minute or so. Each of the five songs takes its own time to establish its cause and character musically, but the sound is consistent and limited by apparent design in choice of instruments and of improvisational approach. That's what trances do--shut down one part of experience to open up another.

I thought I was going to write more about guitars when I started, but I knew I was headed toward Joe Morris, and having wandered through just a small portion of his music, I'm content that this is the song I have today, made from available thoughts and what interests me moment to moment. to my best ability. The point isn't the guitars, or jazz, or even music, but feeling more alive, more capable of compassion, more dedicated to beauty where it lives and love where it needs to go. Joe doesn't even play guitar on some gigs and records any longer--he began playing upright bass some years back and now often plays with Rob Brown (a sample can be viewed here with the great Roy Campbell on trumpet and Whit Dickey on drums) or groups he leads from that instrument. But the devotion to a larger music and a curiosity about new ways of reaching the sublime still mark his work. He's back living near New Haven with his wonderful family and a dizzying menagerie of life forms reptilian and mammalian who share their space. I don't see them often enough, but the conversation is always going on in my head with his music, and between us when we can do so. That's my practice, or at least the part of it not available in my Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt transcriptions.

2 comments:

Stan Denski said...

One of the better known Miles Davis stories is about the recording of the In a Silent Way album. The title track was recorded in an arrangement by the tune's author, Joe Zawinul, and one that Miles didn't like. After they finished, with the tape still rolling, Miles went into the studio and went to McLaughlin and said "No...no...no, play it like you don't know how to play the guitar."

Where Mclaughlin had played a rather complex part before, now he played the simplist arpeggios possible. That became the finished track, one that Zawinul hated by the way.

The other amazing thing about that record was the role played by Davis' producer, Teo Macero. When Miles gave him the finished album he listend to it and called Miles and said, But it's only 20 minutes long." "I don't care," Miles replied. "It's done."

Macero took the tapes and looped together passages where the first time through he would emphasize the trumbet, the second time the piano, etc. and managed to double the length. The Silent Way Sessions 4 CD box has Teo's edit maps in the booklet and the original version of the title track.

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