“I’m a kind of feral person and really an autodidact from the get-go,” says Joe Morris. “I felt like I needed some way to learn, and playing music has been my focus for learning since I was 15.” Photo by Scott Friedlander
The history of guitar is driven by improvisation and invention—the heroes of which are the innovators who found uncommon ways to approach the instrument and create new sounds. Guitarist Joe Morris has made the study of this evolution a central part of his modus operandi as both a player and a teacher. “If you invent skills, if you invent a solution, you’re really following in the legacy of what is essentially guitar music,” he explains. Morris has done just that, and inspired many musicians to follow in that same path and to forge their own approach.
Morris picked up the guitar as a teenager in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1969. It wasn’t long before he discovered that much of the forward-thinking creative jazz he loved, from such artists as Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, didn’t include any guitars. He determined that if he was going to be a part of this musical lineage, he would have to discover his own language on the instrument.
Morris developed a vocabulary and created a signature sound, which he has continued to explore and expand upon over the course of about 135 or so recordings from the 1980s until now. They cover a variety of approaches to guitar improvisation, from the Ornette Coleman-influenced funk of Sweatshop, to his free-jazz quartet albums, which include Underthru and A Cloud of Black Birds, to collaborative duo releases with a roster of daring artists that includes bassist William Parker, saxophonist Anthony Braxton, and keyboardist Jamie Saft.
Morris recently collaborated with guitarist Mary Halvorson on a duo release, Traversing Orbits, which documents conversational improvisations between two masters of the instrument. Halvorson expresses a strong admiration for the elder guitarist’s work: “Joe is one of the most important guitarists in improvised music, period. He is a complete original, endlessly inventive, and there is an intensity and honesty to what he does that I’ve never heard anywhere else. Every time I hear him improvise, I find myself thinking: How does he come up with this? It’s just so inspiring.”
Morris’ impact on music extends far beyond his playing. His work as a teacher—both privately and at the New England Conservatory, where he has taught for the past 19 years—has been highly influential. He’s something like a free-improvisation Yoda, and musicians of all styles and genres have sought Morris’ advise, including psychedelic rocker Chris Forsyth and cutting-edge avant-gardist Wendy Eisenberg. For those who aren’t able to meet with Morris in person, he’s written a well-revered tome on improvisation entitled Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music.
Long before their duo recording, Halvorson studied with Morris while she was in college, and she explains his impact on her playing: “As a teacher, I am forever indebted to Joe. It’s partly because of him that I developed the confidence and inspiration to pursue music as a career. Joe was not interested in teaching me what he does on guitar. Instead, he was interested in helping me discover what I do on guitar. And that, in itself, was a hugely important lesson. He’s taking into account that each student is an individual, and he knows how to figure out what would be most beneficial and tailor an approach from there.”
Joe Morris’ journey with music is truly personal and unique. Our conversation ranged from dropping out of high school to becoming a lauded guitarist and teacher at New England Conservatory, to how he directed his own course of study to get where he is today, to how he helps inspire his students follow their own paths, and how he keeps his music progressing.
How did you start learning guitar when you were a teenager?
My best friend’s cousin came to visit over Christmas one year. He brought a guitar and showed us some chords. That’s what did it. I bought a Lafayette guitar for a hundred bucks with an amp and started learning how to play it. Within a few months we were playing in a battle of the bands.
I took a lesson from Mark Friedlander, who was the guitarist for Michael Bolton. Then I took probably four or five lessons with Tony Lombardozzi, who teaches at Wesleyan. He showed me how to play changes. He was a really good teacher, but I wanted to learn how to play different stuff, so I quit.
What was the different stuff you wanted to learn?
From 14 till I was 17 or 18, I didn’t have any guitar lessons. I just played. I went from Beatles and Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix and the blues to a lot of other stuff, to Miles Davis. Once I hit Miles Davis, a lot of influences came in, like Coltrane.
We saw the Mahavishnu Orchestra on their first tour and that was completely confusing. We didn’t know anything about scales, so we all went out and tried to learn scales, and I went to Tony to try and teach me harmony on the guitar, and technique. He was really a jazz guitarist, which I wanted to learn about, but my idea of jazz was already different. It was more informed by New Thing at Newport, late-Coltrane, and while he liked that, he wasn’t interested in showing me how to do it. And the other things I was interested in, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, nobody was interested in that who I knew about, so I figured I had to do it myself.
The idea of a guitar in Cecil Taylor’s music or Coltrane’s music is not something you hear.
There was no guitar precedent.
How did you find a way to create your own voice as a guitarist in that music?
When I tried to learn scales so I could understand Coltrane, I tried to imitate John McLaughlin. In the process of doing that, I would get bored and just start improvising. One day, when I was about 19, I thought, “Why am I trying to play like him instead of trying to play like me?” The reason I was interested in McLaughlin or Hendrix was because they were original, they had their own ideas, they were really different and really powerful and on the level of Coltrane. I thought, rather than trying to be like somebody by trying to imitate somebody, if I really wanna be like these people that I admire so much, I should be myself and I should learn how to use my own ideas for my music. And that was when I knew what to do.
Morris’ book on improvisation examines the history and approach to that method of playing across various cultures and eras, but mostly aims to lead aspiring improvisers to find their own paths—a theme that’s the backbone of the guitarist’s teachings.
I really had to be me, which is the idea that I’ve tried to maintain for the last fortysomething years. After that, I looked at guitar players who invented a new way of playing. There are a lot of them, but the ones who really invented a way of playing, that created something that other people followed, those were the people that I really followed. Most of them drew from horn players: Lester Young, Charlie Parker. I thought that if I want to participate in the language of free jazz, I had to understand what the saxophone players were playing, so I concentrated on Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, and Coltrane—in particular, late Coltrane—and Jimmy Lyons, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, and so on.
You’re talking about a serious course of independent study. At that time, did you know that this is what you’d be doing with your life?
I don’t think I had a lot of other choices, by that point. I had a very terrible school life. I was a truant and I had a whole bunch of issues around school and my childhood was really turbulent and messed up and I don’t have a lot of education. I’m a kind of feral person and really an autodidact from the get-go. I went to a student-run alternative high school in New Haven called the Unschool of New Haven, which is like the ultimate hippie free school. I’d spend most of my time hanging around Yale and listening to recitals, going to the library, listening to music, playing music, and reading about music … and I got high school credit for it.
I ended up dropping out of that school and getting a job, but I got a job so I could move out of my mother’s house and save enough money to buy a real guitar. There hasn’t really been any other direction in my life from the point of view of seeking work or anything except playing guitar since I was 15 or 16. I felt like I needed some way to learn, and playing music has been my focus for learning since I was 15. It’s kept me on a path to become a smart guy, and because I did that, I teach at New England Conservatory. It’s unbelievable. It’s a miracle, really, because I don’t have a high school diploma.
That’s really the ultimate DIY story: that you could be self-taught, end up teaching at the New England Conservatory, and become known to many guitarists as an authority on how to improvise on the instrument. How did that happen?
While I lived in Boston, I did a lot of work: I made a lot of records, I built a lot of the improvised music scene. I was there and I had an opinion that I made clear. I got signed to Soul Note Records in 1993 and that was a big thing. I started working on the radio at Tufts University and that put me in contact with Lewis Porter, one of the great scholars of jazz. He wrote two books about John Coltrane that are really phenomenal. He suggested that I teach at the Experimental College at Tufts.
I wrote a syllabus called “Concepts and Aesthetics of Modern Improvisation.” It was accepted, and I taught the course there that went really well. Lewis suggested I combine my really elaborate press kit with my syllabus and send it everywhere. I sent it everywhere, including to New England Conservatory.
One day in 2000, they called me and asked if I would take on this one student every two weeks who had requested studying with me. They said, “This won’t change your life but will get you in the door.” I started talking to students, so that built up my studio and they gave me some ensembles, and for the last 17 years I’ve been pretty busy there.