Joe Morris Quartet – Balance (CF 306)
Joe Morris is probably the most important guitarist working within free music at present. He has a wealth of recordings dating back over the last three decades and has been particularly prolific with various projects during the last few years. However, for me, I always feel that he produces his most important work in his quartet format. This particular recording pulls together his string-based quartet of Mat Maneri (viola), Chris Lightcap (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums) and himself on electric guitar. This is the same line-up that produced the extraordinary album Underthru, and the same instrumentation as the excellent A Cloud Of Black Birds.
Joe Morris has a unique style and nobody else quite sounds like him especially when he is playing electric guitar in a more free jazz type setting, which as you would expect from this line-up is the mode of expression explored on this album. With the instrumentation that is involved the music has a chamber feel at times, particularly on the more introspective pieces such as Trust, but can be equally full-on as well. As with all good quartet writing and playing the focus is shared throughout the instrumentation and each musical personality comes to the fore right the way through the album, giving good contrast and balance to the material and the album as a whole.
All the pieces appear quite aptly titled with the first piece Thought being a complex but static texture that bubbles underneath the surface as if the ensemble is contemplating the musical excursion to come. This then moves into the second track Effort, which in contrast to the first piece contains a lot more ideas, textures and interplay. Although all tracks have single word titles I wouldn’t say that the musical pieces are summed-up by them, but rather give the listener a starting point which the music illustrates and explores further. This seems like an obvious thing to say, but I listen to so much music that doesn’t do this that when I finally hear music that does it so well it’s so refreshing to dwell on this simple fact. As you would expect from four excellent improvisers the playing contained within is a delight to listen to with Morris and Maneri being on particularly good form and shouldering the responsibility of holding down most of the foreground material.
Although showing what could be considered abstract tendencies the music seems to be contained by larger forms and alludes to fast bop-type pieces as well as ballad-like forms, chamber pieces, and free improvisations, which are all spun through Morris’s personal musical vision and incredible technique, resulting in the type of sound-world that only he can muster in this way. If you have heard his free jazz styled music before, (although Morris would consider all his music to be just ‘free music’ with no distinction) then you won’t be disappointed by Balance. If you haven’t heard a Joe Morris album before then this wouldn’t be a bad place to start, although I personally feel that Underthru just has the edge on it. However, this is a very welcome release from an important improvising musician, whom for my money works at his best within this particular format.