Thursday, April 18, 2013

Joe Morris Curates Two Weeks at New York's The Stone (January 2013)

This text had a few lives and was slated for a couple of different publication possibilities that, in the end, didn't work out. Coupled with some time-quotient issues, it is belatedly seeing its first publication here. Far from being "old news," however, I think that reminding people of the work that goes into curation and how art develops from artist-curated forums is constantly necessary. With that in mind I present capsule-reviews and ideas gleaned from some of the nights Joe Morris curated at The Stone in January 2013.

There is something to the idea of curation as an aesthetic practice. For example, when the visual artist/critic Donald Judd installed works by his contemporaries and historical precedents in his home/studio at 101 Spring Street in SoHo in 1968 and the approach was as much for prolonged contemplation as for usurping the traditional museum-gallery system. In addition to Judd’s own three-dimensional works, there are monumental pieces from painters Frank Stella and Ad Reinhardt, a pliable relief of Claes Oldenburg, and the fluorescent light objects of Dan Flavin. As Judd put it in a 1977 essay, “I have learned a great deal by having other artists’ work always present. It's the only way to understand their work.”[i] Of course, artist-curated shows are nothing new and in fact, they are probably closer to the norm, sometimes playing with notions of curation and installation art (witness Robert Gober’s surreal-yet-methodical hodgepodges at the Menil Collection in Houston). Musicians have similarly curated festivals and venues for quite some time, often for similar reasons – contemplation of influence and relationships, as well as forming and solidifying new bonds between players.

Connecticut-based guitarist/contrabassist and improvising composer Joe Morris held down the second two weeks of January 2013 (1/16-1/31) at the venerable Lower East Side space The Stone. The venue is a firm artist-centered institution of the kind that has been increasingly rare over the past few decades – the door goes to the artists, the musicians program most nights, and new ensembles and recordings often result. It’s Utopic in a way. Morris’ stand was one of the longer ones I’ve witnessed, and quite special: in addition to the semi-regular groups and frequent associations, Morris surrounded himself with acquaintances, new collaborators and people he was as interested in hearing as he was in collaborating with. After all, in addition to being a musician-composer, Morris is on the faculty at the New England Conservatory, he writes (his recent text Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music, published by Riti, is a fascinating read, posing more questions than answers), and in collaboration with brass multi-instrumentalist Stephen Haynes, curates sessions at Hartford’s Real Art Ways.

Morris may call Connecticut home but his initial floruit was certainly New York-centered and a fair amount of those associations remain strong today, as he regularly works with improvisers such as pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, percussionist Warren Smith, tenorman Ivo Perelman and younger figures like drummers Mike Pride and Gerald Cleaver, trumpeter Nate Wooley and saxophonist Noah Kaplan. As one would expect, the two weeks of performance included some classic lineups of East Coast improvisation. These outfits included Morris, Shipp and Parker in trio, the Ivo Perelman Quartet (with Shipp, Morris and Cleaver), and return visits of the Morris/Parker/Cleaver trio (whose extraordinary 2011 live set was issued on Aum Fidelity in 2012 as Altitude). Also on hand were a number of Morris’ northeast confreres – drummer Luther Gray, altoist Jim Hobbs, brass multi-instrumentalists Taylor Ho Bynum and Stephen Haynes, and collaborators from elsewhere including Chicago reedman Ken Vandermark, Spanish pianist Agusti Fernandez, Belgian reedman Joachim Badenhorst and Detroit drummer Ben Hall.

It is pretty staggering when one stops to think about how many recordings Morris is on, and how many different contexts he works in. If one were to take Perpetual Frontier and its discussion of a variety of methodologies that free players use as a litmus test, Morris engages nearly all possible structures at one point or another. There are rhythm-based musics that move more within the sphere of “traditional” free jazz and post-Ornette methodologies; those that have more in common with European free improvisation; groups that somewhat recall Anthony Braxton’s working modes; and unique amalgams that draw from a range of possible approaches. But Morris’ insertion of himself into these ensembles isn’t by any means egoistic – when he is a co-leader it is apparent, and when he steps to the side to let his (often younger) associates shine, it is with a clear interest in their work and his ability to give these players a space.

Of course, the first-time and rare meetings offered some of the most direct surprises – vocalist Anne Rhodes and bassist Carl Testa, partners in and out of music, are based in New Haven and frequently heard as part of the Tri-Centric sphere of Anthony Braxton. A fascinating trio brought them together with Morris’ guitar on one of the colder nights of the festival. To hear her with acoustic guitar and contrabass brought an almost folksy quality to her voice, wordless sound production dry and insectile as well as bringing forth sultry gestures. Testa and Morris played almost like a bass duet at times; not that Morris stuck to low registers, but his rhythmic attack seemed applicable more to “string generalities” (consider that Morris is also a bassist) and complemented Testa’s rich tone and Rhodes’ sonic range beautifully. My words to Morris immediately afterward (and I stand by my enthusiasm) were: "when are you three going to make a record?" Like so many unrecorded but brilliant ensembles we can only hope that someone makes it happen (and pays for it).

Conversely it was surprising to learn that the Joe Morris Bass Quartet – featuring Morris on contrabass along with Bynum, Gray and saxophonist Allan Chase – had never performed as a group, considering how focused their lone Hatology CD is (High Definition, 2008). Outside of Braxton’s music, Bynum (heard here on cornet) is an incredibly crackling and incisive player with shades of elder-peers Wadada Leo Smith and Stephen Haynes in his tone and approach. Meanwhile, Allan Chase has taken in nearly every conceivable way of playing the alto, baritone and soprano saxophones in a modern setting, from in to out. He’s not particularly well known outside of the New England Conservatory environs, where he has taught, and that is too bad – Gerry Mulligan, John Surman, Marion Brown, Ornette, Lee Konitz, Steve Lacy – it’s all there, and wrapped into one of the most individual saxophone approaches in contemporary music. Chase’s limned kaleidoscope of phrases, coupled with Bynum’s brass shouts and the telepathically-synced rhythm section, renders the Joe Morris Bass Quartet’s palette formidable and engagingly diverse. 

Preceding this group was another quartet under the nominal leadership of pianist Steve Lantner – Chase, Morris and Gray fleshed out the group – and like the Bass Quartet, another treat for the Lower East Side. Lantner reminds one of Jaki Byard or early Cecil to a degree, or Paul Bley’s more obstinate and colorful work of the ‘70s. Lantner’s phrases bubble up in jagged bursts, and the interaction between his work and Chase’s cobbled boppishness was striking indeed. Across two lengthy improvisations, Gray built up a steam of coppery floes as Morris’ pizzicato inserted itself into whatever nooks and crannies remained. On disc, the Lantner-Morris-Gray trio is often airier than what was heard at the Stone, which was positively on fire. Lantner (on keyboards) also performed a set with Morris and drummer Jerome Deupree as Mess Hall, which I sadly missed. Also performing that night was the noisy and outside organ trio The Spanish Donkey, with Jamie Saft on organ (Kalashnikov; John Zorn) and Mike Pride on drums, which gave Morris a chance to stretch out in distortion-drenched downtown blues. It’s therefore fitting that their music has been released by art-rock label Northern-Spy (XYX, 2011).

In addition to Shipp, Fernández and Lantner the piano chair was occupied by the Finnish pianist Frank Carlberg, who now resides in New York (and of whom I’d never heard previously). He led a quartet with Morris on guitar, Luther Gray and the German bassist Pascal Niggenkemper, which was comparatively spare – Carlberg is curious in his use of series and repetition, bringing out flourishes and small batches of fireworks in astringent lines. While a number of opportunities to see Niggenkemper in action during the two weeks of Stone concerts were not always convincing – he’s got an anarchic approach to prepared bass that doesn’t always settle – here his muscularity was front and center, with pizzicato impulsions riding chattery waves. On one piece, the metal bowl he often uses ended up as a great effect alongside Carlberg’s piano-guts work. Passages of traditionalism also emerge but full of tug and copious turnarounds, with Morris and Carlberg in seemingly constant push-pull. On the second piece, a particularly interesting Luther Gray drum solo (and there had been several at these performances) emerged, drawing heavily from Haitian and North African rhythms, disassembling rhythms and putting them back together in interesting ways, but with a teetering and impassioned (rather than methodical) approach.

Morris’ Wildlife (which followed the Rhodes/Testa/Morris trio) was perhaps unsurprisingly a rousing experience; it’s interesting that bands like this seem not to get the attention they deserve when they appear in New York, because the music is made up so completely of congeniality and the expression of energetic, shared focus. The group is a quartet made up of the Morris-Gray rhythm team alongside alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs and tenor saxophonist Petr Cancura. Hobbs is as commanding visually as his saxophone playing – he looks like a tall and swaggering woodsman. The Czech-born Cancura is throaty and blurred, his harrowing bursts borrowing from as diverse a quadrant as Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp, Willem Breuker, and Warne Marsh. All four musicians in Wildlife are telepathic and in nearly constant conversation – Hobbs’ acerbic baubles and Cancura’s brays reminiscent of Shepp and John Tchicai, Morris and Gray locked into a loose, highlife-inspired free bop. Gray was particularly fine on the closer, in which his cutting North African and Turkish rhythms, rugged and encircling, were almost Blackwellian. If one isn’t aware of Luther Gray’s drumming, one should be straightaway, to say nothing of the wonderful Hobbs and Cancura. Though they have one eponymous CD under their belt (issued on Morris' Riti imprint), experiencing this work live is another story altogether.

One of the odder groups of the two-week run was tenor/soprano saxophonist Noah Kaplan’s quartet, of which Morris (on guitar) is a member; the group also features electric bassist Giacomo Merega and drummer Jason Nazary. Born and raised in California, Kaplan studied at the New England Conservatory and his work is an outgrowth of the teachings of the late saxophonist-composer Joe Maneri. It would be easy to classify the work as part of some “Maneri school” if such a thing existed, but Kaplan and company are mostly under their own (full) steam. Ultimately, Kaplan is a forceful and throaty player, especially on tenor, and somewhat reminiscent of Joe McPhee – his bent and skewed voicings are hard charging as gooey and unsettling as the refracted phrases are. Coupled with the loud, rock-derived chug of Nazary and the burbling isolation of Merega (who reminds one of a fascinatingly hermetic Hugh Hopper), this is a formidable and defiantly odd outfit. Morris’ work within the unit appeared almost bemused and curious at times – not hesitant, but he was something of an outlier in a predefined sound world, albeit one that he is certainly experienced in as he worked extensively with Joe and Mat Maneri in the 1990s.

Skittering free improvisation wasn’t always the order of the evening, but when it was, it was extremely well envisioned. Following a duo between Agusti Fernández and Ken Vandermark, the Abstract Forrest Quartet joined Morris’ guitar with Joachim Badenhorst’s clarinets and plastic tubing, as well as Pascal Niggenkemper and drummer Ben Hall. Hall and Morris have worked in a number of groups including Melee (with Nate Wooley and cellist Hans Buetow) and Glass Key (with guitarist Chris Riggs). Hall is a percussionist whose pedigree in “noise” might have put him off the usual avant-garde jazz hounds’ scent. That’s too bad because if anyone were to carry the torch of early John Stevens and New York Art Quartet-era Milford Graves, it would be this drummer. However, that’s not to say his connection to these historical methods of percussion is without a hard and fast contemporariness. Light, empathetic and constantly inventive, his insistent jabs and fluid time provided an arresting carpet for the clambering interplay of guitar, woodwinds and prepared bass. Badenhorst himself was quite a revelation on this rare New York visit – his pillowy tone and oblique parallelism put him in a strange category. While he has a bent, leaky quality and can be both diffuse and obsessive in his phrasing, there’s a strong connection to an older, pre-bop saxophone language that creeps out as well. In addition to the Abstract Forrest Quartet, Badenhorst was heard with Fernandez and vocalist Kyoko Kitamura in trio, in an absolutely rare meeting (again, one I sadly had to miss).

A curious aspect to the Stone is that across these performances there were certainly opportunities for Morris to actively watch, taking in the music made by his peers and compadres. He has an observant quality whilst in the throes of creating, which is interesting to note – and while all good musicians key into that collective impulse in which every artist is an actor, participant and observer, Morris is keen in his study of what fellow ensemble members are doing. But he also sat out a number of sets, presenting units that he was absent from but clearly fascinated by – the spirited free jazz/Black Rock hybrid Black Host convened by drummer Gerald Cleaver, for example (with pianist Cooper-Moore, Pascal Niggenkemper, altoist Darius Jones and guitarist Brandon Seabrook), as well as Agusti Fernández solo or in duo (with Ken Vandermark) and trio performances. The pianist's duets with Vandermark were incredibly visceral and remarkable for their divergences as much as for their intersections. These are two players who come from distinctly different backgrounds. Fernández' exploration of resources inside the piano are intricate and massive while also imbued with a distinctly old-world romanticism, while Vandermark is a reedman wholly in the (outside) jazz tradition whose best work is formally set apart from extended technique. They are both materialists, hard yet ultimately poetic, but the way in which they engage those terms seems to come from opposite corners.

Fernández and Morris performed in a piano-guitar duo the first night of the festival as a live setting of their Ambrosia disc (Riti, 2011), stringed volleys and lacy hidey-holes splaying out into rugged, planar strums and lower-register roiling on the first piece and a sinewy balance between delicacy and mass throughout. A recent transplant to New York from Spain, Fernández' piano student Eva Novoa presented a sparser and cloudier extension of her mentor's language in trio with vocalist Jean-Carla Rodea and guitarist Ryan Ferreira; Rodea is fascinating, her vocals breathy, stammering, and nearly nervous – obsessive but loose. Rage, eccentric joy, hesitance, seriousness, sadness, sexuality and theater were all coexistent and coupled with Ferreira’s pedal-actuated fuzz and Novoa’s gong-abetted minimalism. This was one of the most unsettling and unique performances of the festival.

A couple of heavily anticipated and rarely seen (at least in New York) performances limned the stand’s latter half: the guitar-centered quintet Lava Bat and brass multi-instrumentalist and composer Stephen Haynes’ project Pomegranate: New Music for Bill Dixon. Lava Bat consists of Morris, Mary Halvorson and Chris Cretella on acoustic guitars, violinist Yasmine Azaiez and David Cordes on bass. A chamber quintet, the music utilizes Ellington’s small groups and Django’s Hot Club ensemble as a platform or a vessel for spontaneous exploration. Certainly the rhythmic imprint of “gypsy jazz” is codified in the music of Lava Bat, but to bring it up to a more modern speed, has a “Picric Wobble” to it (using Bobby Naughton’s title). Azaiez is a dervish-like master of the expanded palette yawing between roguish accents, false-fingered grotesqueries and screaming, harrier-like frontality like nothing I’ve ever seen or heard. She’s incredibly precise and rigorous with these whorls, however, which makes the experience of her solos that much more compelling, and an interesting counter to the folksy offshoot of Spontaneous Music Ensemble-like conversational fields that the guitarists engender. Cretella is a particularly interesting guitarist whose work has otherwise escaped my awareness; he’s definitely folkier (in the New Americana sense) than Halvorson or Morris, though all three guitarists complement one another perfectly.

Pomegranate: New Music for Bill Dixon is a setting of improvised quintet music from the core trio of Haynes, Morris and percussionist Warren Smith (who waxed the extraordinary Parrhesia for Engine Studios in 2010), with the addition of bassist William Parker and the wonderful young tubist Ben Stapp. Haynes was a longtime student of and collaborator with the late brass multi-instrumentalist and composer Bill Dixon, dating to the latter’s work at Bennington College and extending (with some time apart) to Dixon’s last ensemble pieces for the Tapestries Small Orchestra. Dixon’s sonic imprint on Haynes is certainly large and one might have expected Pomegranate (which takes its name from a 1966 Dixon piece) to present itself as pure homage/recreation. Even as an astute listener to the music of both Dixon and Haynes, I was expecting something along those lines and was moved by the fact that the Dixonian adage to “do your own work” was what coursed through the music most readily. Haynes is a bright and incisive soloist who cuts through ensemble clouds with bugle-call expressiveness and high-register aplomb, economically referencing languages and forms as diverse as bebop and rhythm units. Elegant and painterly, the only paeans to Dixon’s sound world were in the music’s three-dimensionality and sometimes elegiac pacing – the contents of those cubes and fields exuberant and celebratory.

What Joe Morris did as a curator was a real coup – he brought the congeniality and community of a variety of interconnected scenes into a salon-like environment where players could cohabitate, create and observe one another’s work, developing new alliances and methodologies in the process. It was not only interesting to bear witness to a host of diverse ensembles and artists, but to see that Morris, even as a “focal point” for the two weeks of music, is just as ingrained in the process of sharing and research as his peers. Throughout the two weeks of performances, he showed himself as a keen observer of The Music as a whole, whether or not his name appeared first on the virtual marquee (and often it didn’t). While the ensembles were a bit more formally presented than, say, Derek Bailey's Company Weeks of old, and evenly ballasted between new meetings and familiar groups, the upshot was that each of these players was utterly fascinated by one another and eager to learn on a variety of participatory levels. The vibe was such that the audience played an equal part in this endeavor and I can say that for me it was an extraordinary two weeks of listening/watching “seminars” the likes of which don’t happen often enough. This experience also has me revisiting how I encounter the vastness of Morris' discography, for it is that of someone eager to create, curate, and be part of an expanded community.

Thanks to Joe Morris and Kevin Reilly. Top photo of Morris courtesy Peter Gannushkin. More images here.


1/16 Wednesday
8 pm
Agusti Fernandez, Joe Morris
Agusti Fernandez (piano) Joe Morris (guitar)

10 pm
Agusti Fernandez, Joe Morris, Nate Wooley
Agusti Fernandez (piano) Joe Morris (guitar) Nate Wooley (trumpet)

1/17 Thursday 
8 pm
Nate Wooley, Agusti Fernandez, Ken Vandermark, Joe Morris
Nate Wooley (tpt) Agusti Fernandez (piano) Ken Vandermark, (tenor sax, clarinet) Joe Morris (guitar)

10 pm
Nate Wooley, Agusti Fernandez, Ken Vandermark, Joe Morris, Ben Hall, Pascal Niggenkemper
Nate Wooley (trumpet) Agusti Fernandez (piano) Ken Vandermark (tenor sax, clarinet) Joe Morris (guitar) Ben Hall (drums) Pascal Niggenkemper (bass)

1/18 Friday 
8 pm
Ken Vandermark, Agusti Fernandez
Agusti Fernandez (piano) Ken Vandermark (tenor sax, clarinet)

10 pm
The Abstract Forrest Quartet
Joe Morris (guitar) Joachim Badenhorst (clarinet, bass clarinet) Ben Hall (drums) Pascal Niggenkemper (bass)

1/19 Saturday (MJ)
8 pm
John Zorn (sax) Dave Douglas (trumpet) Nate Wooley (trumpet) Kenny Wollesen (drums) Joe Morris (guitar) Eyal Maoz (guitar) Uri Gurvich (sax)

1/20 Sunday
8 pm
Agusti Fernandez Solo
Agusti Fernandez (piano)

10 pm
Agusti Fernandez, Joachim Badenhorst, Kyoko Kitamura
Agusti Fernandez (piano) Joachim Badenhorst (tenor, clarinet) Kyoko Kitamura (voice)

1/22 Tuesday
8 pm
Carl Testa, Anne Rhodes, Joe Morris
Carl Testa (bass) Anne Rhodes (voice) Joe Morris (guitar)

8 pm
Jim Hobbs (alto sax) Petr Cancura (tenor sax) Luther Gray (drums) Joe Morris (bass)

1/23 Wednesday
8 pm
Stephen Haynes, Kyoko Kitamura, Michael Evans, Joe Morris
Stephen Haynes (trumpet) Kyoko Kitamura (voice) Michael Evans (percussion) Joe Morris (guitar)

10 pm
Taylor Ho Bynum, Sara Schoenbeck, Joe Morris
Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, trumpet) Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon) Joe Morris (guitar)

1/24 Thursday
8 pm
Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Joe Morris
Matthew Shipp (pisno) William Parker (bass) Joe Morris (guitar)

10 pm
William Parker, Joe Morris, Gerald Cleaver
William Parker (bass) Gerald Cleaver (drums) Joe Morris (guitar)

1/25 Friday
8 pm
Mess Hall
Joe Morris (guitar) Steve Lantner (keyboard) Jerome Deupree (drums)

10 pm
The Spanish Donkey
Jamie Saft (organ, synth, bass) Joe Morris (guitar) Mike Pride (drums)

1/26 Saturday
8 pm
Steve Lantner Quartet
Steve Lantner (piano) Allan Chase (alto, baritone) Luther Gray (drums) Joe Morris (bass)

10 pm
Joe Morris Bass Quartet
Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet) Allan Chase (alto, baritone) Luther Gray (drums) Joe Morris (bass)

1/27 Sunday
8 pm
Jean Carla Rodea
Eva Novoa (piano) Ryan Ferreira (guitar) Jean Carla Rodea (voice)

10 pm
Frank Carlberg Quartet
Frank Carlberg, (piano) Joe Morris (guitar) Luther Gray (drums) Pascal Niggenkemper (bass)

1/29 Tuesday
8 pm
Gerald Cleaver's Black Host
Cooper-Moore (piano) Darius Jones (alto) Brandon Seabrook (guitar) Pascal Niggenkemper (bass) Gerald Cleaver (drums)

10 pm
Noah Kaplan Quartet
Noah Kaplan (tenor, soprano sax) Joe Morris (guitar) Giacomo Merega (electric bass) Jasoc Nazary (drums)

1/30 Wednesday
8 pm
Ivo Perelman Quartet
Ivo Perelman (tenor) Matthew Shipp (piano) Gerald Cleaver (drums) Joe Morris (bass, guitar)

10 pm
Stephen Haynes
Stephen Haynes (trumpet, cornet) Warren Smith (marimba, percussion) William Parker (bass, zintar) Joe Morris (guitar, banjo)

1/31 Thursday
8 pm
Lava Bat
Joe Morris (guitar) Mary Halvorson (guitar) Chris Cretella (guitar) Yasmine Azaiez (violin) David Cordes (bass)

10 pm
Joe Morris (guitar) Tanya Kalmanovitch (viola) Yasmine Azaiez (violin) Geni Skendo (flute) Junko Fujiwara (cello)

[i] Donald Judd (1977). “In Defense of My Work” in Complete Writings 1975-1986 (9). Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum.