As someone who has been rabidly tracking Joe Morris's career since 1986, I have mixed feelings about his recent heavy focus on playing contrabass rather than guitar. As a guitarist, Morris has a well-deserved reputation for developing a unique voice. The clean tone, fast single-line atonal phrasing, extended vocabulary using serrated picks — these factors and more have made Morris recognizable among throngs of guitar players.
As one can hear on this CD, however, Morris has not yet carved out such a niche for himself among bassists. He is a fine bassist, but his woody tone and fairly standard approach to playing make him sound, well, like a decent bass player. However, Morris devotees need not fret, as it were, because many of the compositions on this disc bear the distinct stamp of the leader's sense of melody.
Faced with as fine a recording as this one, then, it becomes easier not simply pine for his earlier guitar tours-de-force like "No Vertigo," "Singularity," and "Human Rites." The sparkling production of the digital recording allows the listener to easily hear the individual players but simultaneously highlights their interplay. The eight compositions here are all Morris originals, and he chose an excellent ensemble to give them voice.
The compositions on this album cover a range of approaches. One type is embodied by tracks like "Skeleton" and "Bearings." If the sax/trumpet/rhythm instrumental arrangement for the CD had not already suggested Ornette Coleman, the first track surely would. However, this is Ornette by way of 70's era Anthony Braxton. While the rhythm section executes a swinging walk, the horns blaze through the crazy intervallic leaps of the tune's head. Two other tracks, "Topics" and "All-in-one," also roughly fit into the post-bop continuum, although the looser feel of the rhythm section in "Topics" evokes Morris favorites like Jimmy Lyons.
Morris's compositional style is recognizable on several tracks. "Morning Group" and "The air has color," for example, would both be at home on Morris's guitar-based albums like "Antennae" and "A cloud of blackbirds," with the horns play the angular lines usually handled on guitar. But he also experiments with interesting new approaches, as in "Super spot." It is a beautifully hypnotic piece based on a cyclic bass figure whose rhythm seems breath-like, with the horns dancing and sparring on top.
Morris has done a fine job of structuring compositions that allow the horn players to display both their brilliance at soloing and at playing harmolodic "solos" with each other. However, Taylor Ho Bynum, who plays cornet, flugelhorn and trumpet here, is a stand-out instrumentalist. Bynum has developed a unique language on his instruments, as one might expect from a Braxton alumni. His multiphonic solos often seem to hover and nearly suspend time, making his contributions one of the most captivating aspects of this CD.
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