“One approach, one aesthetic, one way of organising my music isn’t enough for me.” So says Bostonian guitarist Joe Morris, in his liner notes for Balance, an album on which he mostly plays individuated notes ideally suited to the wiry, tactile sound of an electro-acoustic quartet that also features violist Mat Maneri. The monstrous racket that Morris makes with organist/producer Jamie Saft and free drummer Mike Pride in the plugged-in power trio The Spanish Donkey could hardly be more different.
WhereThe Spanish Donkey’s Raoul thrums loudly as a mass of organ drones, sustained, fx-drenched guitar lines and turbulent percussion, the Maneri Quartet’s Balance is much more spacious and organic.
RAOUL (Rare Noise) is a follow-up to The Spanish Donkey’s 2011 debut XYX (Northern Spy), which is an unsung classic of outer-jazz noise/fusion. Its 32-minute title track develops very, very slowly as a wayward ruckus of fat, meandering, microtonal organ daubs threaded through with distorted guitar lines and arrhythmic drumming that turns increasingly punitive. Entering its twenty-second minute is like entering an acid-and-Zappa-induced nightmare of apocalypse featuring Stevie Vai beset by demons while P-Funk keyboardist/space cadet Bernie Worrell does the usual. Something Bill Laswell might conceive in a delirium, perhaps.
This is a long set. “RAOUL” alone is the length of an Arctic Monkeys album, and there’s still the 22-minute “Behavioral Sink” and 16-minute “Dragon Fly Jones” to go.
“Behavioral Sink” picks up where “Raoul” left off, only Morris is initially shredding more cleanly, and Saft’s organ has a churchy tonality that reminds me of…something. Something I can’t put my finger on, something by ELP, perhaps, or Yes circa Fragile. This music is much louder and wilder than the prog of old, but, on this piece at least, Saft’s playing still bears traces of 70s-style excess. Pride is a distinctly now drummer though, bringing Boredoms-inspired energies to bear. He’s elementally raucous, much freer and more effective here than on his own recent albums, while Saft’s Hammond Organ drones surge dangerously across the frequency spectrum. A superb production ensures they flood the listening environment. Morris, meanwhile, looses a no-stop tide of arpeggiated sound, often channelled through delay and sundry other effects.
In this context, “Dragon Fly Jones” is fleetingly luminous—Pride highlights that feel with bright cymbal hits— but mostly viscid. With Saft on Echoplex piano and Morris plucking or grinding out slower, often echo-drenched lines, it’s hard for the listener to get a purchase on this glutinous but slippery sound. Never mind though, because “Dragon Fly Jones” has ineluctable momentum, and bears all toward a k-hole conclusion that’s snatched from the imminence of cacophony.
Balance (Clean Feed) has Morris back in action, in December 2013, with the last lineup of a longstanding quartet that he’d disbanded in 2000. It features bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Gerald Cleaver, both of whom also play alongside Morris, Spanish Donkey’s Jamie Saft and another guitarist, Mary Halvorson, in Saft’s group Plymouth.
The Morris Quartet is completed by violist Mat Maneri, who was recently reviewed here in the context of the ex-Incredible String Band singer/songwriter Robin Williamson’s poetic Trusting in the Rising Light (ECM). Maneri worked for many years in close partnership with his father, composer/saxophonist Joe Maneri, forging a unique microtonal approach to jazz. Together they made music of beautifully ascetic particularity: witness their recorded legacy, which includes a fine trio album with Morris, Three Men Walking (1996). Morris and Mat Maneri then recorded as a duo (Soul Search, AUM Fidelity, 2000), and cut At The Old Office (Knitting Factory Works) with Lightcap and Cleaver the same year.
This music is much drier and more focused than The Spanish Donkey’s. Just compare the track titles, which here are “Thought”, “Effort”, “Trust”, “Purpose”, “Substance”, and “Meaning”. This, they say, is serious music, but the quartet’s manifest intensities are played out with tight, light precision.
“Thought” is a brief (3:35) primer, with bowed bass and viola creating slippery frictions, and Morris’ guitar runnelling between them. “Effort” (11:22) is more muscular. Lightcap plucks emphatically while Cleaver mixes splashy cymbals with snare, but the focus is on the interplay of Morris’ shard-sharp runs and Maneri’s taut, resinous bowing. Both solo superbly, then combine as Morris plays chord variations around the locus of Lightcap’s pulse.
At its densest, this is spikily pointillist music, a dense but airy thicket of barbs, but “Trust” (9:23) is more ruminative. Morris plays gentle chords against Maneri’s elisions, while Cleaver’s brushed cymbals dust Lightcap’s emphatically laid-back bass lines. The spacious feel of their music is sublime, and Maneri plays a particularly effective solo that’s a touch mournful, a touch wondrous.
“Purpose” (12:38) is brisk, nimble and quick-witted, with all three string players initially plucking rapidly and Cleaver laying down a light patter on rims and skins. Maneri’s subsequent bowing against Lightcap’s more insistently-worked bass emphasises the tautness that gives this group it’s inherent tension. Morris’ breakout solo, in fast-flowing single-note style, precipitates a wonderful passage of solo percussion, kindling the frictional four-way that negotiates a conclusion.
Morris is at his brightest and jazziest when apparently setting the tone on “Substance” (6:36), but both Maneri and Lightcap play thoughtful solos, and the guitarist sounds more mournful in turn. When he’s done, the piece ends, emotionally played out. “Meaning” (12:13) reprises the brightness, and this time the collective response is more vigorous and animated.
Cleaver, in particular, gets to work out some accumulated tensions on the last piece, but, as always, the most striking thing about the Joe Morris Quartet is it’s individual members’ precision and their collective equilibrium. The light and space within their music is a marked contrast to the saturated soundfield of the more waywardly volatile Spanish Donkey, but both are strong and original recordings.
Joe Morris electric guitar; Jamie Saft organ; Mike Pride drums.
Joe Morris guitar; Mat Maneri viola; Chris Lightcap bass; Gerald Cleaver drums.
Buy Raoul direct from Rare Noise Records.
Buy Balance direct from Clean Feed.