POSITIVE KNOWLEDGE

Live In New York
Edgetone Records EDT 4018

KEVIN NORTON’S METAPHOR QUARTET
Not Only in That Golden Tree…
Clean Feed CF011CD

The latter half of 2002 wasn’t a particularly good year for improvising double bass players. Not only did German bass master Peter Kowald fall victim to a heart attack at 58 in September, but 64-year-old New Yorker Wilber Morris also died of lymphoma in early August.

Kowald’s spectacular work has been justly celebrated, as he was one of the primary European innovators from the 1960s on. But Morris, backbone of many bands from Manhattan’s Lower East Side was often undervalued, in part because of the number of other first-rate bassists around, and by the mere fact of being conductionist Butch Morris’ older brother.

Even in a sector as egalitarian as jazz/improvised music, the achievements of one family member often overshadow the other sibling’s achievement — recall the situation of pianist Buddy Montgomery and cornetist Nat Adderley to take two examples. Yet most people could tell you that Buddy was almost as fine a blues and ballad player as his guitarist brother Wes; and Nat was not only as voluble and impressively funky in his soloing as alto saxophonist brother Cannonball, but he wrote jazz standards like “Work Song”.

Initially from Los Angeles, the Morris brothers arrived in New York in the 1970s. Butch soon moved beyond cornet playing to conducting saxophonist David Murray’s large group projects and to the creation of improvised conduction. Intuitive and versatile, Wilber was able to play with proto-boppers like drummer Charlie Persip and singer Abbey Lincoln as easily as he fit in with such outcats as Murray, violinist Billy Bang and trombonist Steve Swell. He was the sort of sure accompanist that everyone wanted, whether officially, as a member of percussionist Kevin Norton’s Metaphor Quartet, or in a pick-up situation, as when he joined West Coast visitors, multi-reedman Oluyemi Thomas and his wife, spoken work artist Ijeoma Thomas on a New York gig.

That 2001 gig captured on LIVE IN NEW YORK finds him and percussionist Michael Wimberly fusing as if they always were the Thomas’ rhythm partners, though only the drummer and woodwind player had worked together before, as the last two tracks recorded in 1999 demonstrate.

Throughout the seven tunes recorded at that year’s Vision Festival, Morris’ strong, unspectacular bass lines hold the ensemble together, mostly keeping the melody line firm and straightforward and occasionally letting loose with some arco inventions. Even on “Mother Africa”, which is dedicated to him, the emphasis is on subtlety not showiness. Andante, his solo includes a straightahead walking intro, largo double stopping and the sort of skillful mindset that causes him to measure each string for its possible sound overtones before striking it. He may upend the bass to stroke its strings with his bow, but again his natural reticence takes over, so that what would be a tour de force in another’s hand in his becomes a prelude to fading back into the rhythm section.

That’s precisely what he does here. Considering the front line, it’s no surprise he and the drummer seem to be taking figurative back seats. With a vocal exposition that’s part arousing and part acrimonious, Ijeoma Thomas’ lyrics range from descriptions of the poetic process itself, to celebrations of heroes and heroines associated with creative Black music. Frequently mere words aren’t enough and she turns to a variation of scat singing, more often than not blending her vocal secretions with the tones from Oluyemi Thomas’ mouth instruments.

If anyone doesn’t remember that some of the major New Thing figures such as Eric Dolphy, Dewey Redman and Pharoah Sanders were either Californians or spent considerable time there, Thomas’ playing will prompt you. Don’t forget that some of John Coltrane’s most mystical albums, such as LIVE IN SEATTLE and OM, were recorded in the West as well.

On bass clarinet, Thomas’ low-pitched exposition and gospelly turns relates back to Dolphy, a supposition confirmed when his wife joins her wordless tones to his to give the bass reed added resonance. On flute and musette his approach is definitely West African like Redman’s and Sanders’, bringing forth the subcontinent properties of the instruments that presage their Arab usage. This becomes especially apparent when the axes are singly or together paired with rhythm makers like shaken maracas or the unique scratching sound of the elongated guiro, which was used by the Bantu people before becoming a fixture in Afro-Cuban bands.

In his duets with Wimberly and other times on the disc, Thomas uses these instruments to sound out primitivist sound shards and complement the drummer’s more modern percussion asides and Ijeoma Thomas’ evocative lyrics with bell shaking and other percussion forays. Additionally, while he might best express himself on the primitive C-melody as well as the soprano sax, his output is pure Sanders-Coltrane, alive with reed-biting trills, honking and squealing lines, exaggerated bent notes and irregular vibrations that are more expressions of emotion than pure composition.

More sophisticated in conception, the pieces Norton wrote for the Metaphor Quartet affirm their individuality through the members’ instrumental virtuosity, and his combination of narrative, through-composed structures with more typical jazz forms.

Best known for a seven-year association with composer Anthony Braxton’s more difficult projects, Norton has also worked with a cross section of other musicians. He and Morris clicked rhythmically in bands led by saxophonist Alfred Harth and Swell, among others. Japanese trombonist Masahiko Kono, who often alters his sound with sampling also worked with the bassist and drummer in the past and has also played with stylists ranging from trumpeter Toshinori Kondo to bassists Kowald and William Parker.

Originally from Nagoya, Japan, vibist Hitomi Tono’oka, Metaphor's youngest member, was a student of Norton’s at William Paterson University, following her homeland degree in percussion studies. She is also a member of saxophonist Fred Ho’s Afro Asian Music Ensemble.

Interesting enough, although the sympathies of the quartet members are definitely POMO, the blend of vibes and ‘bone that characterize these compositions recall progressive hard bop from the 1950s which would find trombonist J. J. Johnson and vibist Milt Jackson on the same date. With Kono often relying on cushiony pedal tones and Tono’oka using four mallets to slide over her bars, it’s again up to Morris to steady the course, especially when Norton solos.

No time keeper, when the percussionist is given his head as on the almost 20 minute “Missed You in Coutances, Babe”, he goes Buddy Rich one better, turning from allegro rumble and thump to faster and faster snare, tom and cymbal showcases. In a change from his steady walking, Morris is almost swaggering in his solo. Guitar-like strumming his strings, he puts more torque into his output, double stopping, slowing down and speeding up his lines, the better to meet Norton’s anything-but-traditional accompaniment. The climax is reached when slurred ascending trombone sounds meld with silvery vibe tinkles.

Freebop to the Nth degree, the appropriately named “Walking The Dogma”, is so traditional with its trombone and vibe blend and walking bass, that it resembles Herbie Mann’s 1960s’ hit “Comin’ Home Baby”. It is modern enough though, that Kondo gets a chance to expressively peck out some slide positions and Tono’oka varies her output from that of a chiming glockenspiel with expansive slides across the bars. Electronics from the ‘bone man and a wooden Bobby Hutcherson marimba-type attack characterize “It Must Be”, with Norton churning out drags and rolls on his skins and Morris again almost selflessly modulating the rhythm.

As a matter of fact, the only tune that seems almost somnolent is the final one, where rolling ride cymbal whacks and largo, almost bounce-less trombone and vibe connections make the composition seem slower than it actually is. Morris’ rhythmic thrust seems less lively and more melancholy than elsewhere. Considering that it was recorded about 18 months after the first three selections and six months before the bassist died, you wonder if intimations of his mortality was affecting him and the other band members as well.

Despite this, either CD — not to mention many, many others — stand as impressive testimony to the underappreciated skills of Wilber Morris.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. Proofs (for Alan Silva) 2. Secrets of Imperfection 3. The Upper Chamber House of Prayer 4. Righteous Intent 5. Ask Eric/Iron Soul (for Eric Dolphy) 6. Mother Africa (for Wilber Morris) 7. In One Heart (for Jeanne Lee) 8. Direct Focus* 9. Beauty is Hidden*

Personnel: Live: Oluyemi Thomas (bass clarinet, c-melody sax, flute, musette, percussion); Wilber Morris (bass [except*]); Michael Wimberly (drums, percussion); Ijeoma Thomas (spoken word, percussion [except*])

Track Listing: Tree: 1. Missed You in Coutances, Babe 2. Walking The Dogma 3. It Must Be 4. Not Drunk, But Stunned

Personnel: Tree: Masahiko Kono (trombone and electronics); Hitomi Tono’oka (vibraphone); Wilber Morris (bass); Kevin Norton (drums and percussion)