Joe Morris/Luther Gray

Creatures
NotTwo MW 840-2

Joe Morris

Camera

ESP-Disk 4063

By Ken Waxman

Confidently inventive on these CDs, Boston-based guitarist Joe Morris demonstrates that he’s lost none of his facility or individuality despite a decade also working as a bassist. Overall, it’s hard to choose between these two releases, recorded approximately one year apart in different Massachusetts studios.

While Creatures, a duo with Washington-based drummer Luther Gray, is a high-class examination of how many notable improvisations can be produced by only two musicians, it also suffers from its virtues. There are only so many ways to voice four strings and a drum kit. Camera on the other hand adds the additional textures – one is tempted to say perspective and contrast – that are filmically available with the addition of Cambridge-based cellist Junko Fujiwara Simons and Stockholm-resident Katt Hernandez on violin. Intentionally or not, the line-up conjures up memories of similarly constituted ensembles from The Revolutionary Ensemble to the String Trio of New York.

With all the tunes named with photographic allusions, the quartet builds up to top-quality portraiture on the CD’s final tracks, “Patterns on Faces” and “Reflected Objects”. Benefitting from the presence of four potential soloists, the first tune is angled around a legato and tremolo cello lead, accompanied by Gray’s muted pops and drags. The latter piece’s duet of Hernandez and Morris moves with enough complex yet unforced licks to suggest what may have happened if Jim Hall at his most adventurous had recorded with Leroy Jenkins at his most traditional. Added is low-pitched shuffle bowing from Simons, who eventually also involves the fiddler in some mutual sul ponticello string-scuffing. Also showcased are sharp licks from Morris and an episode of rattled cymbals and thumped snares from Gray that resembles a standard jazz drum break.

Simons’ two-handed bowing and plucking on “Patterns on Faces” bonds with slurred fingering and emphasized fills from Morris, as well as spicatto pumps from Hernandez. With the three operating in multiphonic counterpoint, the final theme variation reaches its climax with intermittent string falters from the violinist, who by not completing her licks, leaves the ending purposely hanging.

Analogous stop-start strategies are avoided on the other CD, since it appears that Morris is unwilling to stop playing. It isn’t much of a hardship considering that his soloing throughout is swift, diatonic and unusually lyrical. At the same time Gray is one of the least flamboyant percussionists, pacing himself with light flams and drags.

The two attain a significant sound-meld on “Creature Proportion” as Morris’ multi-fingering story-telling runs sizzle alongside the drummer’s rebounds, hammering tones and final polyrhythmic paradiddles. Nonetheless, the guitarist’s superfast, though sympathetic licks put what is produced by showier plectrumists to shame. The same unforced lyricism is part of the defining “Creature Outlook”, as Gray’s cymbal shudders, ratamacues and taps intricately outline the guitarist’s taut, single-string frails. Morris’ perfectly shaped tones play tag with the drummer’s bounces and rim shots until the fleet interaction brings the performance to a satisfying end.

Whether you prefer Morris and Gary in duo or quartet form, each CD is an axiomatic example of the guitarist’s – and the drummer’s – subtle art.

Tracks: Creatures: Creature Emotion; Creature Adventure; Creature Proportion; Creature Influence; Creature Outlook

Personnel: Creatures: Joe Morris: guitar; Luther Gray: drums

Tracks: Camera: Person in a Place; Street Scene; Angle of Incidence; Evocative Shadow; Patterns on Faces; Reflected Objects

Personnel: Camera: Joe Morris: guitar; Katt Hernandez: violin; Junko Fujiwara Simons: cello; Luther Gray: drums

— For All About Jazz New York January 2011