Joe Morris Quartet

Graffiti in Two Parts
Rogueart ROG-0039

By Ken Waxman

Paradoxically, the overriding fascination of this 1985 Cambridge, Mass. session is with its least-known player. Unlike Joe Morris, Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris and Malcolm Goldstein, who have well-charted careers in improvised music, this is only the second record featuring Lowell Davidson (1941-1990). More crucially, Davidson plays percussion and aluminum acoustic bass here, unlike his eponymous 1965 debut as a pianist on ESP-Disk with drummer Milford Graves and bassist Gary Peacock.

Someone who studied biochemistry at Harvard, after the trio date Davidson returned to Boston, where after taking too many chemicals himself, found his increasingly erratic behavior meant few gigs. He met Joe Morris in the early 1980s and played with him on-and-off from then on. Davidson, whose piano styling had quirky Herbic Nichols-early Cecil Taylor intonation, approaches other instruments in a more rudimentary and more abstract manner. His percussion implements here result in off-centre coloration rather than time-keeping, while the aluminum bass, intermingling tones with Morris’ distinctive clinks and flat picking from banjouke and guitar, almost lacks double bass properties and is instead mostly involved with upper-partial tremolos. Frequently it’s also difficult to distinguish the bass work from Morris’ abrasive plucks and pops plus Goldstein’s flying spiccato and other extended string techniques. Flexible playing arco and pizzicato, the violinist infuses the proceedings with staccato lyricism. Meanwhile Butch Morris uses his cornet to flick muted tones or plunger whines into the mix. Among the others’ dense and agitated timbres, his mewling grace notes stand out.

Overall, the textures on “Graffiti-Part I” and “Graffiti-Part II” are sympathetically aligned, but the presentation is nearly opaque. Combining the trumpeter’s ghostly puffs, the guitarist’s sharp twangs and the fiddler’s angled multiphonics with occasional metallic string thumps and irregular drum beats allows for few pauses. One does occur in the final variation of the second track when Davidson reveals an uncommon bass line that’s equal parts rubber-band stretching and agitated string rubs until it’s suddenly cut off by B. Morris’ low-toned brass burbling.

Satisfying enough as this CD is displaying Davidson improvising on his secondary instruments, the answer to how his piano prowess changed over time remains moot. Perhaps the appearance of Graffiti in Two Parts will tempt someone to release those tapes of Davidson’s piano playing that are rumored to exist in the Boston area.

Tracks: Graffiti - Part I; Graffiti - Part II; Tag

Personnel: Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris: cornet; Joe Morris: guitar, banjouke; Malcolm Goldstein: violin; Lowell Davidson: drums, aluminum acoustic bass

—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2013