Parisian Thoroughfare

curated by
Alexandre Pierrepont

All of them at once!

Joe Morris in conversation with Charlotte Bourgeade, Camille Fournier, Alexis Estève, Angela Poe, Timo Kisker and Auxence Moulin


Kyoko Kitamura, Rick Rozie, Joe Morris + Stephen Haynes                                               ©2012 Rob Miller

Charlotte Bourgeade: What brought you to play music in the first place and especially what brought you to the jazz field and to free jazz?

Joe Morris: I think I always wanted to be a musician since I was a little kid. I have some musicians in my family. One musician in particular, my uncle John who started playing drums in New York in 1920, was my father’s hero and he was very successful and my father was much younger than him. Actually, he helped my father find a job in the music business and my father idealized my uncle. So he heard about my uncle a lot and my father met Louis Armstrong.

And I think my mother’s mother was an improviser. We lived near New York and my grandfather worked on the railroad, so my grandmother got the tickets for the train to go to New York all the time and she would go to the Broadway shows and, according to my mother, she would come home and play all the songs by ear on the piano, like the same day. And my grandfather played drums, so my grandmother and grandfather would play the songs: she played piano; he played drums in 1925.

So my parents loved music; they talked about music; music made them happy. I always wanted to play music, I started playing trumpet when I was eleven and I had a lot of trouble in school; I had trumpet lessons at school so I had to give that up. And then when I was 14, my best friend’s cousin came to visit and he had an electric guitar. He showed me how to play chords, so when I was 14 I started playing guitar. It was 1969, 42 years ago next month. I did not really understand what my interest in music was about. When I was 14, I was sent to a state institution because I was a truant; I didn’t go to school and had emotional problems and everything. And I had kind of an epiphany that I had to be an artist – when I was 14. And I had kind of an epiphany that, like, you know, as an artist I could focus my interest and my sort of learning on a particular thing. And when I thought of music I was happy, so I decided that I would really work on music for a long time. And so I started practicing the guitar eight hours a day and trying, you know, to be a rock guitar player. I liked Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and everything.

And then I started playing the blues and then gradually my friends and I tried to get better at the guitar and it meant that we had to understand the theory and we had to learn to improvise by a sort of jazz methodology; from that we got into standards and then we got into Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk and gradually I found out about Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Jimmy Lyons who was one of my heroes. I think the main reason I got interested in that was because I wanted to find a new way of playing electric guitar that was capable of what Hendrix had done but different. Hendrix is very much about the blues and, sort of, folk music; that was a sort of technical imperative that he set. And then the next guitar player that I saw as a technical imperative was John McLaughlin. I thought if I wanted to do something innovative, I needed to find something else. What I found was essentially unit structures, Cecil Taylor’s methodology and I thought: “Well, if I play that, I will be the next guitar God and everybody will love me and I’ll be a billionaire”. It hasn’t quite worked out. That really how I got into music. Long answer.

Angela Poe: It’s cool because mastering the instrument led you to jazz and improvisation.

Morris: Well, yeah, exactly; I wanted to just be like the hot guitar player, who can take solos. I liked the guys who took solos and then I liked the guys who could play jazz, so I wanted to do that and so I would be practicing and this where I think I have a sort of improvisation gene or something. I would be practicing my scales and I’d lose focus and I’d start improvising, I’d just start playing. I’d tell myself “no don’t do that, go back to working on your scales, you must get the scales right.” Back then, we did not just learn scales the way I teach my students; I just have them learn them and then I say “start improvising right away, don’t try to play too fast or anything.” I tried to play fast, I’d loose the focus and I started improvising and I started realizing that the improvising is what I really wanted to play.

I was practicing to try to be like John McLaughlin who was the guitar player at the time, who’s very fast and who could play all these very precise scales and stuff. I remember having like another kind of epiphany where I said “Wait a minute. If I want to be myself on the guitar, I can’t be John McLaughlin, right?” So I had to play what I want to play; so I just stopped playing scales and started improvising. And then I found music that supported that, so I was kind of a free improviser before I knew there was such a thing. Which I think everybody is, I mean, I think that’s the way it works.

Poe: How did that change when the whole notion of free jazz started to be labeled?

Morris: For me?

Poe: Yes.

Morris: Well it’s labeled primarily by the community of people who are labeled under that. Now as an experienced person, as a teacher, I view it as a community of people who perform on certain platforms with very specific methodologies. Free jazz is really a methodology, or a number of methodologies that allow musicians to organize their music without focusing on harmony. They focus on how the group interacts, how they create melodic structure, how they process melodic structure, how they relate to rhythm, how they state rhythm, how they relate to pulse and so on and so forth. So I’ve been studying those things now for about 37 years, that’s what I teach and I’m writing a book on it. So, I’ve been sort of thinking about that since 1973.

Camille Fournier: What are you searching for in the diversity of styles?

Morris: Great question. To me, my repertoire is not a series of compositions: it’s a series; it’s a number of methodologies and approaches. So it’s not so much what I play; it’s how I play and maybe why I play. So I sort of classify it as “why?” and “how?” rather than what song of what composition. I’ve said it for a long time – I have a repertoire of approaches, not a repertoire of compositions, I do compose though. The materials that I use when I improvise are very specific in terms of how they relate to what’s going on and how they relate to what I’ve just done. And I can learn them, and I can teach them, and they’re very specific. And sometimes they emerge from common practice by accident, sometimes they’re rendered intentionally. Am I losing you? I can go really far over there.

Alexis Estève: Could you go a little further please?

Morris: Well, the way I look at all of this is that these are very intentional practices of really great artists. There’s a sort of misleading explanation of what free jazz is or what free improvisation is – as if it’s a random action controlled by someone’s faith or intuition. I think those are factors, but you know this is technique and this is done with repetition and practice and with preparation, and there really is nothing random in it at all. There is spontaneous action all the time and those actions are like ... I look at them as a process of synthesis, interpretation and invention. I call my music free music, meaning music that musicians set the criteria for and decide whether they meet the criteria. So this is music that’s intentionally not meant to abide by any linear tradition, and not meant to appease or to seek the approval of any institution.

Poe: So the musician is his own academy?

Morris: Exactly, exactly! Well put, thank you very much! Everybody who’s really my hero operates like that. I think it happens in a lot of different kinds of music, but often what happens is an academic will say “oh, really what they’re doing is this.” But they don’t get it right because the intention is not really the same. That type of analysis is after the fact; people like me are always trying to stay ahead of that. We want to find what the next thing is, everyday.

And so now I’m at the point where I have enough control over all those things that I can play with no preparation except the assembly of musicians, you know. And I can build form out of that, I can build melody out of that, I can create harmony out of that, I can create polyphonic harmony out of that. I can use any combination of things I want with no limitation on it and be fully in control all the time. And one of the factors of control is to accept that you’re operating with a logic that accepts that you don’t know what the result is always going to be and so you have to accept that it’s going to formulate itself in the process of making it.

Poe: And that’s exactly what you look for also; you’re just experimenting where it can take itself, so you change the input.

Morris: Yeah, I change the input. It’s not much different than a conversation. We might begin with a subject and then you bring up your version of it and then it bounces around and before you know the conversation has changed and then we might go back to saying “yes, but the point was...” and then we’re back on it.
And that’s really what musicians are seeking in this kind of music, it’s a dialogue. I agree in improvising with the idea of having enough control of your instrument so that you can speak through your instrument, just as you have the impulse to speak and all of your muscles in your mouth and your throat enunciate words; but the synapses are just so rapid that you can’t quite tell exactly what you’re going to say and then you say it. And when you’re improvising at the highest level, that’s what happens. That’s a learned thing; it’s language you know; it’s similar to language, so you want it to be an oral transfer of a thought process.

Estève:  And how do you get to that point?

Morris: Practice; practice!

Estève: Practice of what? Improvisation?

Morris: Oh, you practice facility: you have to gain facility on your instrument. Improvising musicians create technique; they learn the existing technique as much as they can, and then they create technique that they find necessary to express their own particular thing. Which is why John Coltrane and Charlie Parker sound different; that’s why Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, contemporaries, sound different. Because, in order to find that spot where their voice is heard, they create a technique that defines them, so they practice their own technique, they practice creating technique.

Once you get that, then you work on being fluent individually and collectively. A big part of that is the ability to listen and the ability to quickly analyze the material coming from other people, so that you can adjust as you would in any other thing. So you can say, “Oh, I hear what’s happening here and I need to adjust a little bit so that I can combine this, or I play and I break it down to different interactive models.” You have solo, unison, compliment, juxtaposition and silence. And if you figure factors of three in all the interactive models, you have plus, minus and neutral all the time; you’re together or you’re alone, or you’re on, you’re off or you’re neither, right? And so those things are constantly in play; you’re either relating in a close unison to another player, in compliment or support, so you’re either together, in support, in opposite, you’re alone or you’re silent. And those things happen all the time. And they happen in relationship to the materials that pertain to melody, rhythm, silence and pitch – simple music things. And so you find that if you use musical things to relate to the language of music and you process as many of those as you can have control over, then you’ll be very fluent.

Poe: What did you say about music as a conversation? I know that individual artists probably have their own things to say, but there was a point in time, in the past for instance, where jazz spoke to a kind of freedom that wasn’t there before. What do you think jazz, this kind of free music, is expressing today? Does it express anything collectively?

Morris: Great question. One of the things about improvisation and specificity of the African-American community is that they were deprived of franchise. They improvised a hospital; they improvised the transportation service; they improvised housing; they improvised food distribution; they improvised everything in their life. They had no access to the institutions that supported music; even if they were virtuosos, they were shut out. So every part of it is improvised, the whole culture of it is improvised. I think that’s the idea of free music really. It is one thing to be avant-garde in an institutional kind of way; but that’s where the idea of doing it yourself (because we know that the powers that be don’t care anyway) becomes a thing that obviously appeals to everybody. That’s an evolutionary human sensibility; it reinforces the possibility of an individual or a group having control over their whole life. And so if it manifests itself in music, it definitely can be interpreted in anything else. I don’t think we would have any kind of culture if it wasn’t for Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong. I don’t think the West in particular would exist without Jimi Hendrix. Still, Rolling Stone magazine has an issue now “The Hundred Greatest Guitarists” and Jimi Hendrix is number one. I don’t know if he’s the world’s greatest guitarist of all time, but he signifies his free independent organization of his own culture. And I think people are naturally inclined to that, but they are because it’s evolutionary.

When people create things that people have to identify with a cultural analysis, we evolve. We would know what a chair is if somebody didn’t conceive it, manufacture it and then everybody gather around and interpret what it means. To know what a chair is, is an evolutionary thing: it’s the reason we don’t sit on the floor. Everything is like that. And music is absolutely like that. So, the music that helps us evolve is the music that we are most, I’d say, deeply intrigued by. The music that entertains us and helps us devolve, is kind of relaxing because evolving is exhausting! It doesn’t come easy. So I think that’s pretty much it. I think it’s about evolution, I think it’s our job, you know. Like, what we’re trying to do is create something that never happened before, for a second. And I think that for my point of view, consciously if I can create a moment of reflection for anybody listening to me, good or bad, a point where they have a second to contemplate their existence, not in a religious way or in a scientific way, just a second of wonder, it’s going to change them.

And I know it because it happens to me all the time. I’m a kind of a lightening rod for that. I can get it walking down the street, or being in this room, you know. My mind’s been turned on since I was 14 years old. When I turned it on, it will never turn off. So I consider my job and the luxury of doing this to be about possibly, because I have no ego invested. I personally think from an evolutionary standpoint and this is the highest part of my aesthetic: if people do that, they stop killing each other eventually. I mean, they just stop doing all the horrible things they’re inclined to do because they haven’t evolved enough. So I think that’s what art is about; that’s what the sciences are about; that’s what the healing arts are about, it’s about actually getting us to the point where we’re not horrible murderers, you know, monsters who destroy everything.

Poe: Is the fact that fewer people listen to jazz now partly because of that evolution? Like, it’s evolved into so many different styles and so the interest has diffused?

Morris: Yeah, I think a lot of people still associate jazz with that same political objective: there are remnants of it. I think for some people jazz is just a career.
I think jazz as an industry, as a sort of trademark set of methodologies, is done. I really think it’s done. And I think it’s been done a number of times. Free music – no, that’s not done. Because jazz has a codified definition. It says, “No that’s not jazz, this is jazz.” You know at this point we have Wynton Marsalis, the richest institution to ever put the name “jazz” on it, telling us what jazz is. And I always say it’s like he killed it, stuffed it, put it in a glass case, and said, “There it is!” You know? So I don’t want anything to do with that. I don’t say too much about it because I know that jazz is part of a very good people, and I don’t want to insult them, but when I say it carefully, they know what I mean.

Because we’re really all after the same thing: we’re not after it ending, we’re not after it being defined, we’re about what I call “the perpetual frontier.” I’m writing this book, it’s called Perpetual Frontier: the properties of free music. The perpetual frontier – that’s what we’re after! So when you go, “Yeah, it stops here!” then it’s over. So we don’t call it that anymore. I don’t call what I do “jazz” anymore. I don’t want it defined by anybody; I refuse to have anybody define it. I refuse to have them evaluate it positively. I don’t want their positive; I don’t want their negative. If they’re negative, they don’t understand. If they’re positive, I don’t care. You know? Go make some work, leave me alone. I don’t want anything to do with it, so I call it free music and I’m not really interested in whether or not jazz survives. To me, Louis Armstrong is a free music musician; Anthony Braxton is a free music musician; Charlie Parker is a free music musician. And when the school says, “Here’s how Charlie Parker wants you to play,” they’re wrong. Charlie Parker doesn’t care how you play; he’s dead!

Poe: He wants you to do your own thing?

Morris: He couldn’t care less how you play! He’s not around to evaluate: he’s gone. And if he were here, he’d be like, “How come everybody’s trying to play like me? You’re stealing my gig! Leave me alone. Make your own music.” Right? So I consider myself to be a real person in that continuum. And if I feel that way, then I figure everybody else feels that way too. And if they don’t like it, fuck them.

Timo Kisker: In what way does being in touch with African American culture – the spirituality, the heritage, the influences – how does it make it better?

Morris: I think there is at least the allowance in free music that you have a “why.” There’s a “why” branch: Why do you do this? And I think some people will say, “Well, you know, I don’t really have one.” Obviously, saying “I don’t have one” states an aesthetic.

You ask, “What’s your aesthetic?”

“I don’t have one.”

“What do you believe in?”

“I don’t believe in anything.”

Now if you ask me: that’s a belief. What do you believe in? “Nothing.” Okay, so you believe in nothing; some people believe in something. I’ve kind of described what I believe in. And I think that the high ideals that are expressed in the African American music that I love absolutely influence me to approach it that way. So I have tremendous respect for that because I believe it has a sincerity that is very profound, whereas in some other things, there is a lack of sincerity. So that sincerity is something that I think, again, people really cherish and seek to be connected with.

Kisker: Do you have an example for the things that you really treasured and that are precious to you in African American culture?

Morris: I think the issue of justice, fairness, and equality. I would say at this point there is an inherent or implied suggestion of sustainability in that as well. I know for me I was always drawn to African music. You know I searched through African American music to find roots that I could relate to as a guitar player because I couldn’t relate to classical guitar. And as an American, it’s like I went through jazz, and I went through blues, and I went through the African Diaspora in all different ways and ended up in West Africa. And one of the things that impressed me was – and not in an old, noble savage kind of way – that here’s a continent of people struggling just to survive but they never built an atomic bomb. They didn’t have to dominate each other with overwhelming force. There’s something to be learned from any society that survives that long and isn’t out to annihilate each other. They might fight, they might kill each other, they might do horrible things to each other, but there isn’t an end game kind of thing.

Personally, one of the things that’s important to me is that there’s an implied respect for nature in African culture. I think art is about that, a lot of times. And my personal connection to African music really has a lot to do with that sense of respect for the survival of nature. I think my sort of political belief is really more that, you know, survival of the planet is essential to anything else going on. You can hate each other, but if you poison everything, it doesn’t matter if you love each other – you’re dead.

So the best expression is the expression of your surroundings. A lot of my recordings have pictures of elements of nature on the covers. They have natural, you know, photographs, drawings, and no one has ever asked me about that. It’s interesting to me because I’m sort of surprised that the free music world has sort of stopped looking at these issues when it came to analyzing itself. And this analysis didn’t always include a broader, extended sense about what the whole world political picture was. So I try to put it in mind. I don’t lecture people about it, but it’s there.  I have a record called Age of Everything, which is really about how everything is here in the world, it’s a little poetic thing. I have a record called Today on Earth; I have a record called Antenna. I have a lot of different titles that somehow relate to this sense that people reflect on their existence and their surroundings. I have one called Beautiful Existence and those are not political in the sense that I’m not arguing about some political issue. It’s more about a relationship to our surroundings and existence.

Kisker: Just one little addition… so that means that you evolved in your life and you have found that you had already found it? It’s not like you changed through it so much, but you found what you wanted in the music. And not the other way around?

Morris: I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. You know I was young once myself, and you know what it’s like, right? Like you’re reading books about philosophy, you’re reading books about spirituality, you’re reading books about romance, you’re reading books about travel and adventure and you’re trying to figure out where your ideas fit in with all those things, right? I found a solution that I can work with. It overwhelms me a little bit to think about it actually, but I found a combination of things that keeps me interested. So I’m still interested, I’m not ravenous about it.

I accept the fact that I can pick a tiny little microscopic drop of the world and it doesn’t hurt anybody. And I think what it basically comes down to is that I believe that music is one of the really beautiful things that people do. Right? Like, it’s a beautiful thing. And so if you do things that are beautiful, it’s better than if you do things that are horrible. You have to make a living, and I think if you can make a living in a way that somehow creates something that someone might gather information from, that means something to them, and then you’re a very fortunate person.

Estève: I had a question about guitar. I know that you play other instruments like bass; so why is guitar your principal instrument? What do you get on the guitar that you can’t get on the others?

Morris: Guitar is a big problem. It’s a big problem. Taking everything I just said and the idea that I try to solve that problem, all those issues, with the guitar… like I’m this young person trying to figure out how to adjust to live in the world. And I get the guitar and I think, if I can play something that’s never been played on this thing – even a little bit, not the whole thing, you know, a percentage of invention – if I can invent a way to synthesize things, if I can invent a way to interpret something, if I can get some invention… that would be very meaningful to me.

And the guitar has constantly challenged me in that sense, even when I hate it. Sometimes I think, “I can’t work with you at all!” I told somebody once it’s like getting a dog at the rescue place and then taking it to the dog show and winning. You know, like you find a dog on the street and it’s all ragged, you take it home and you raise it, you brush it, and then you take it to the dog show and you win. To me the guitar is like that: it doesn’t get a lot of respect, it’s not an accepted high art instrument; it’s like the people’s instrument.

Poe: The underdog…

Morris: Yeah! Yeah. So if you try to turn it into something that is expressive on a higher level, it’s going to really, really put you through some stuff. And I can’t give up on it even though I’ve tried. And I’ve played bass too, but I’ve played bass for different reasons. I don’t aspire to express my individual voice on a bass. I enjoy playing the bass, and it’s more about collective playing – it’s less about individual playing, with the bass. So I have a different approach to the bass.

So, the guitar is kind of like my child, you know? Imperfect as it is, I’m stuck with it. I thought I’d raised it really well, and then it went out, got drunk, and drove into a telephone pole. You know it dropped out of school and now has tattooed its face. Feels like that! And so I take it home and I go, “Come on man! Let’s try to, you know... c’mon, let’s get your shit together!” And I try to play it, and that’s what I try to do. So I’ve gone through all these different processes to try to get it to be something that I’m proud of. And some days I sort of am. So it’s just that it’s a long-term problem I took up myself.

Estève: Isn’t it hard to find a new sound when we are always listening to guitar? I mean at the supermarket, you hear guitar, and you hear it all the time so… how do you get to create something new?

Morris: You guys are asking great questions! But I’m really intentional about a lot of this – and I’m lucky that I can be – and I’ve been doing it for such a long time. I trust my value judgments; I trust my judgment. And I would encourage you all to trust your judgments. I have my students. I use my critical consciousness seriously: I ask my students to tell me, “So what do you like about this?” They go “Oh, I like this.” And I say, “What don’t you like about this?” And they say “Ah well it’s a little bit like this…” and I say, “So if you don’t like that, what would you do?” And they say, “Well I would do this…” and I say, “Good, do that. And when you do that, you’re making your own decision.” And it’s all true.

It might be that there’s a space the width of a hair that you can fit something into. And you have to figure out how to do it, and the rest of what’s already there is huge, but you follow a crack. And so if you think, say, “Now I’m going just work in here” then you’re doing something that’s unique. So it’s really critical consciousness, it’s really decision making. And I’m a pretty good decision maker. One thing that I value with my students very much is their right to fail. Their right to fail miserably is important, so I never tell them what to do. I never tell them what to like. I try to help them gain fluency, and I try to help encourage them, and permit them to make their own judgments, to decide what they like, figuring that they could make a decision they think is great… and it could fail miserably.

You learn a lot from that, you know? And the benefit of being older is that I know that it’s not the end of the world if, like, everybody hates your music. If everybody loved my music, I’d be a millionaire and I probably wouldn’t talk to anybody. The fact is that very few people like my music, so I have to keep trying to find a way to have them to like my music. I don’t want to tell them to like my music. I want to put something out there and someday have everyone go, “It’s amazing… This is genius, I’m changed!,” And that’s really what all of us are working on. Again, like, we want to have everybody love us unconditionally, without asking them. Right? So you have to keep trying.

Poe: But then, that comes when they get that what you’re doing is pushing the frontier. Like you play it in different ways because you want to see what else there is, and other people just want what they’ve already heard.

Morris: Yeah, exactly. There’s pressure in the jazz world to finalize a style. And then present that style ‘til the day you die. It’s a terrible trap, it’s terrible. You know art is really about change and evolution. I worked for a long time to have a very defined style, and pretty much by the time people started to recognize it, I was already done with it and so I had to really step off. I had to step off and just go, “Nope, I don’t want to do that.” And people say, “But this is what you do. This is what’s going to work. This is what people want!” And I said, “Yeah but where were you like 25 years ago when I figured out how to do this? It’s not like this was every right to anybody. Now it’s right because they understand it, a few people do, and they think they can sell it, but … I’m done. Like, I’m thinking about something else.” And when I figured that out, it’s like ... you know what I am? I’m somebody who’s trying to think of something else. Thank God. Like, that’s what I am, so that’s what I’ve been since then. About 11 years now, I’m just like, “Nah, I’ll just do whatever I want.”

It’s worked out better. I don’t tour as much, I don’t sell as many records, I don’t have everybody telling me I’m the greatest guitar player in the world or anything. Some people say really incredible things, amazing things happen. But instead I get to just decide for myself, and I think that makes the music better. I really do. You know if I decided that I should stop and just sell it. I would be a salesman. Yeah, I would rather work in sales. I wouldn’t want to do that to music. It doesn’t feel right. I don’t disrespect. I don’t blame other people for doing it. People have to earn a living. I just don’t, I’m not comfortable with it. Not because I’m better or anything, it just doesn’t sit well with me.

Poe: You want to leave the beauty un-reined?

Morris: It’s not as if I’ve always played something I never played before. You can only play what you know how to play. But you can learn something on the spot, you really can learn something. Like, right now you can learn something. So I like to put myself in a position where I have to learn something. Like this group, it’s assembled in a particular way where I think I can do certain things. But I don’t know what that’s going to be. There’s a couple of things that I can try, but if I try them the wrong way, they sound terrible because they sound contrived. And contrivance is the death of all creativity. Right? You don’t want to do that. So that means I have to somehow adjust the process of doing it so that there’s some uncertainty in it. I have to embrace that uncertainty as like a really powerful organizational tool. And let it happen, you know? And it’s always better that way, from my point of view.

Estève: So what do you think about people that want to listen to the same music over and over again? Do you consider this as bad because there is no more evolution?

Morris: I don’t know. I don’t really judge people by the music that they listen to, I like lots of music that might be junk food, but I like some junk food too. I don’t really want to have a sort of sphere of superiority, because there’s no limit to that, you know. If you say this stuff isn’t good for you, so then where is the stuff that’s good for you? And, how horrible is that for somebody, you know? I mean, what is that? I try to just figure out what stuff is.

Sometimes I drive a lot, because I teach far away from my home. So I’m in the car and the music on the radio is not like, what I listen to, so I listen to Rihanna and I don’t really get it, but I like the sound. I listen to all kinds of stuff and I just try to figure out what it is. I don’t think I know the answer, I really don’t. Plus I think I am old, and you can’t think that you know what’s new when you’re old! You just can’t. You’ve got to just say: “I’m old, I’ll try to keep my thing new and maybe somebody will like it but...” If you’re not 20 years old then you’re not 20 years old and you have to let the people who are 20 years old set their own life, you know. So, some stuff that might be trashy ends up being beautiful. Sometimes the trashiest stuff is the most beautiful stuff, right?

But you know, remember that people thought jazz was horrible. They thought Louis Armstrong was like a criminal maniac, you know! He is black – they hated that, you know – and he played this crazy music that made no sense. We’re playing crazy music that makes no sense to somebody! Thank God! That’s what I want to do: play some crazy music and people go: “What the hell is this?” That’s it. We know, we know, we know what it is and we know that someone’s going to go: “Nah, they suck! This is trash!” And plus, some of the things I do, they’re actually kind of fun, they actually swing which is like horrible. You’re not supposed to do that; it means you’re stupid. Well, I think swing is beautiful, you know. To me, I always tell students: “If you were to swing, it’s like kissing the person you love for the first time.” So what, you don’t want to do it twice? Like, you’re never going to do it again? Like: “Nah, once is good but that’s old fashioned.” Swing is really like that. If you play music that grooves – if you can – and then you say: “Yes, but I don’t because it’s unsophisticated.” I really think it is the same as going: “I would never kiss the person I love again. That’s just too many germs.” It’s really like that. You know, some go as far as: “Hmm... I’m going to figure how to do that as many times as possible.”

So, the beauty of the kind of stuff that I do is that I can piss off snobs, and I can piss of slobs, one way or the other. I can piss everybody off, you know. Somebody is like: “That music’s too avant-garde.” Well, they need to grow up. And then other people are like: “That’s just trash. They don’t know what they’re doing and it’s terrible music.” They need to grow up. Some place in the middle, just sit there and figure out what the hell is going on. And, you know, buy a CD!

Auxence Moulin: So, to come back to the relationship between the music and the people: I was wondering what makes you change the way you play the music, I mean in a crowd, its reactions maybe or the city or the country you’re in? I mean during a gig, in the context of a concert.

Morris: The reaction of the audience means a lot. Sometimes you feel that they automatically are not interested. And so part of you wants to engage them so that they will be, which is a good thing. And then sometimes you feel that they’re engaged and it permits you to go farther. And the second one doesn’t happen enough; maybe because I’m always trying to sort of push it, you know, I don’t feel that enough. I think my nature is to challenge people and I can’t help it. Not that I think it is loving in the way I do it. I try to play what I would want to hear. But sometimes I’m not sure of it. Last night, we had a little bit of that. Some people in the front got up and left.

And I thought about the first time I saw Ornette Coleman and I love Ornette Coleman. And I saw Ornette Coleman, and I was like: “Is this good? Is this really great? I thought this would be better than this.” And something in me said: “Just sit here and shut up and listen to the music.” And I felt this about Monk, Ornette, Cecil Taylor – a lot of people I like. It’s so close to being human, in the sense of there is a risk of failure doing this. I tell my students this all the time. Improvising is really about failure. You try something, and then you’re like: “I better try another thing.” Like: “That was pretty good, but let me try another thing. Let me try a variation on that, maybe I can get exactly to the thing I’m after.” So, it’s like failure in a grand sense but it’s a process. And the process isn’t all positive. So, you know you have to kind of negotiate that with the audience. So, you don’t want to just make it too simple for them, because then you failed. There’s nothing there. But you know you don’t want to make it so complicated for them that they hate you.

Moulin: So maybe you want to bring them to something that they wouldn’t have accepted at the beginning?

Morris: Definitely, yeah. You hope for that. You try to. That’s the game. You try to do that, you try to reach them. And it’s a give and take. We’re up on the stage, and in this kind of music, I don’t think you feel like you’re going to go up and give it to the audience. Maybe if you’re a singer or a pop singer, like, you’re going to perform for them. This is more of, like: we are going to go and do what we do, and we hope that they’ll give us enough attention so that we can do that very well. And so, the audience in this kind of music is kind of witnessing us formulating this thing in the process of making it. And so, it’s different than being just an entertainer. We haven’t told them what’s going to happen. If you go to a Beethoven concert, you already have an idea about Beethoven. “Oh, the second movement is supposed to be like this.” We might not even have a second movement. We don’t know what it is, you know. We have certain habits, certain things that we play that come up in certain situations that people might be expecting. Or they might just have a general expectation that it’s going to be a certain kind of thing. And then we have to figure out what the result is going to be. It’s uncertain. Indeterminate I guess is the word.

Kisker: Can we just go a bit further into this? Because uncertainty is said to be a good thing in jazz music, in a way; but if you think about it, in today’s world, we have so many options and choices and we are very much surrounded by uncertainty. We do not have constancy in life any more. So do you think that this is one of the reasons why people aren’t as much into the randomness of free-jazz any more and rather listen to pop-music they know on the radio?

Morris: Well, they don’t have a choice about that first of all. Music is controlled by an industry, and the industry doesn’t value diversity. You know, they don’t give you a choice of what kind of a car you’re going go have. They make a car and you’re going to buy one out of the ten different ones they have and you can’t go: “Can I make my own car?” Like no way. So as soon as the industry controls it, and the industry decides what it’s supposed to be, they’re going to tell you what to like. And they’re going insist that you learn to like it whether you like it or not. So they put it on the radio on and they play it all the time.

And you know, that’s not terrible; it’s fine. But I think people who are smarter seek alternatives to that. And we don’t make it easy. I can’t complain that everybody in the world doesn’t like my music. My music isn’t for everybody, like Anthony Braxton said recently: “I realized a long time ago that my ideas were not ideas that everybody shared.” And it’s true; it’s a rarefied world, you know. My wife tells me that what she likes about me is that I fit in no marketing niche. I cannot be defined by any demographer. She likes me for that! That’s who I am. Groucho Marx once said: “I will never join a club that would have me as a member,” which is a great quote. It is a little self depreciating, a little bit different. But I’m sort of like: I just don’t want to be in anything that would call itself a club. It just seems like you loose your individuality in that. I’m battling all the time to not be defined by anything.

Kisker: What kind of link do you create between sounds and colors in your music? Between sounds and your graphics when you use a graphic score?

Morris: You sort of draw an impression with graphic scores; they’re kind of a Mnemonic device, yeah? If I said: “Okay, take this table. Play something that you think relates to that.” Like, you have to look at it and go: “Well there’s some common things; there’s some different things.” There’s a shape you might arrange in pitches; you might arrange it in colors; and you start to think about the qualities of all the different imagery.

Some graphic scores are specific about what you do, and some of them are fully interpretative; they’re just open to interpretation. Some are kind of a loose version of both. So they are all different. They’re intended to either steer you in an interpretation with a particular direction or they are just broad. I’ve done one recording of Lowell Davidson’s graphic scores. They’re a kind of disappearing music notation. They don’t look like real music notation; they look like illusionary music notation. And then some other ones I use are like maps: “Do this. Like this. Then do this. Then add this. Then take this out and then do that.” And they’re general: Violin solo; add guitar; play fast; stop. Bass; play solo. It’s things like that, you know.

Poe: It’s cool though, how the way you codify represents who you are and what matters. Because I don’t really know how to read notes, but if I wanted to remember a particular tune, I would just draw lines that would go higher or lower and then…

Morris:  Yeah, that works really well. For a lot of things, you can just make a graph that tells you about the pitches. You know at this point in improvised music, there are a lot of things other than lines and pitches; sometimes graphic scores are the best way to get people there. If you want a timbre, just a sound, and you have things that can’t be arranged in written phrases, then sometimes a picture is as good at rendition as anything. Another thing is a picture allows people to make choices that notation doesn’t allow. So if you want people to make choices, or you want to make choices that particular way, if you can render a good graphic score, it might work.

Poe: Then you go for the freedom.

Morris: Yeah, that’s really what it’s all about. People have said for a long time that a lot of times improvisation can make things happen that you could never make happen with composition. Like, you’d have to be the greatest musician, the greatest composer of all time with the greatest orchestra of all time to get that much information happening, spontaneously. And remember we’re talking about issues of unisons, in the broadest sense, complement or support in the broadest sense and juxtaposition of ideas. In other words, anything can happen. You can have everybody here doing something different. It’s very hard to do. And the result would be that that sounds like a unison. You know, the logic of it all is confounding. And it’s very hard to get things to always be spontaneously unique. Just like it is very hard to get compositional things to sound like they’re immediate. You’ve rendered something beforehand and now you go: “Okay, now I’d like it to be really immediate.” So, I think that the issue of people using scores to get that combination of things to happen is a long held kind of thing. People are always trying to get to that. To me it’s better to use the idea of assembling a group of people. If I was sort of the musical director, I would have an idea of what you all did and I’d just put this group together and then I’d figure out a certain result. Somebody might not live up to the idea, somebody might play too much, someone might not play enough, someone might be annoying. You know, we’d get a result and the result would be that result. And that’s important to understand. When you do this... You know, people listen to jazz records and say: “This is how you play this tune. Listen to the way Ornette played this in 1962!” Students will say that. I say: “No, that’s that take. You know, they were in a studio. There might have been forty takes of that tune. This is the one they chose. It might be the only time they ever played it like that.” And you can’t say that that’s the one. What are they doing in it? How are they articulating it? How do they state the pulse? Those are the things that are the music. The finished record is just that one particular result.

Poe: You’ve mentioned pulse a couple of times…

Morris: Well, you know, music has a tempo, it has a pulse, you feel it; people say it’s your heartbeat. It’s how you relate to time. The passing of time is rendered in pulse. Some people stay quite right on the pulse; they play the pulse. Some people accentuate the pulse. Some people in free jazz, in particular, play elastic to the pulse. “Okay, here is the pulse,” and then nobody plays it. They’re implying the pulse; you can still feel the pulse. If you go to the Vision Festival in New York, where everybody plays like that with the pulse, you say: “There’s no one’s playing the pulse!” There’s people in the audience going like this (moving his head back forward as if relating to the pulse). That’s the pulse! There it is.

A lot of European improvisers, especially in the UK, and with Wadada Leo Smith, with his rhythm unit, and Anthony Braxton and a lot of the AACMers, do not use pulse. And so they use basically envelope and decay, and sustain in the pitches they make. It’s sound and silence and sound. Every sound has its own duration, the silence has its own duration and they are not relating it to a pulse.

I played with really talented students a couple of weeks ago. And one of the most talented ones said: “Do you call this music?” And I said: “Yeah!” He’s like: “It sounds like sound art.” I said: “Wow, isn’t that music?” I showed it to him to display that they’re not relating to the pulse. And I said: “All you can do is use this stuff as a means of comparison, you don’t have to evaluate which one is right.” He said: “Here’s three ways of musicians dealing with pulse. One states it, one implies it and one ignores it.”

And those are big things that happen to music because people like making them into a huge deal. But from a musician’s standpoint – well; I can do all those things. And so it gives me more opportunities to play. It gives me more material. And, you know, in this group, we do all those things. We do all those things at once. All of them at once!

26 November 2011; Museum of the Quai Branly, Paris

> back to contents