How an innovative player and instructor carved his own trail through the world of improvisation by inventing a unique vocabulary, making 135 albums, and creating a legacy of influence.
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.
In recent years, Morris has also taken up acoustic upright bass. He often plays the instrument while improvising with a frequent collaborator, keyboardist Jamie Saft, with whom he’s released several duet albums. They are also in the aggressive quartet Slobber Pup. Photo by Tim Bugbee
As far as your teaching goes, a big part of what you do is helping people find their own voice. How do you help a student get there?
My strategy is to get them to hear what they’re playing. It’s very, very common for me in the first lesson with a guitar student to suggest to these young people that, rather than being like someone else and admiring everyone else, they learn to admire their own thing and hear what they’re doing as worthwhile, so it’s sincere.
Everybody needs the skill to get around on their instruments so they can play what they hear. They need to develop what they hear and they need to be able to understand how to make sense of what they hear. But that facility should be in service to their own ideas, all the time. That’s the tradition of improvised music.
I think the most basic thing, and it’s a paradox in a way, because I teach at an institution, is that there’s no correct way to play music. There’s only correct ways to play specific music. If you want to play Mozart, you have to play Mozart the way Mozart tells you to play it. If you’re really good at it, you can interpret it differently and bring something else to it, but the parameters for that are very tight. That’s interpretive music. We’re talking about constructing music. There’s no correct way to construct music.
It all is a part of my autodidact thing, and my analysis of how the guitar has developed through invention over the years. If I focus on getting my students to be inventors, they’ll have control over what they want to do and they’ll know how to proceed on their own terms. In a lot of ways, I’m telling them how to be like me or Wes Montgomery or Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt or Jimi Hendrix. Look at these people as inventors, not as interpreters.
The guitar continues to be ripe for invention.
I think the guitar is the essential instrument, in this sense: You can’t go to college and learn how to play classical electric guitar music. There is no such thing as classical pedagogy for the electric guitar, so it’s the ultimate do-it-yourself instrument. Pick the thing up—you don’t even have to know how to know what you’re doing. If you make something interesting happen on it, you can really change some listener’s life with the instrument. You can have a really distinctive voice on the guitar with no skill at all. That’s an incredible thing to me. That’s one of the greatest things about it. If you invent skills, if you invent a solution, you’re really following in the legacy of what is essentially guitar music.
When Ornette Coleman did his music, he was trying to invent his own music and his own musical system, so I follow that and I tell all my students, invent your own musical system. Do what you want, because that’s what the world needs. Otherwise, the world is a disaster. It’s a complete unmitigated disaster full of terrorizing horrors. Let’s do something beautiful. Be yourself, figure out your goal, and try to make it beautiful, try to make it great, try to make it rigorous, push the limits of everything, and see what ya get.
For a long time you used a very dry sound, with your Les Paul plugged directly into a clean amp. As much as that is a simple approach, it seems like you came to that sound in a personal way.
I thought of myself as a jazz guitar player drawing on free-jazz saxophone music. You’d read about all these jazz piano players who would be in [legendary jazz engineer] Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, playing the same piano, yet they all sounded different because they all had a touch. All the tenor players played the same Selmer horn and the same kind of mouthpiece, but they all sounded different. In the ’70s, it seemed like all the guitar players sounded the same. They all had a certain kind of instrument. They used compression and a chorus pedal. But if you listen to Wes Montgomery, he doesn’t sound like Barney Kessel, and Jim Hall doesn’t sound like Barry Galbraith, and René Thomas doesn’t sound like Jim Hall. They sounded different because they all had a guitar plugged into an amp.
I thought, if I’m looking for my own voice and I’m trying to focus on the notes, not the effect of the instrument, I’ll plug it right into the amp and play it. That way, the clarity of the configuration of the notes, which is what I was really after, would come through. I caught unbelievable crap for that. People criticizing me for having a clean sound and this and that. I thought it was a great compliment that they could hear the difference right away.
For many years, you played a Les Paul exclusively, but now you have a few guitars that you use.
I use an Eastman for solo stuff, mostly, and things that are acoustic sounding. I also have a Heritage Eagle that I use through the amp a little bit more. For electric, I have a really cheap but very good Washburn HB35. It’s a really nice guitar that I put better pickups in. I use a couple of Washburns as travel guitars, because I figure they’re gonna get destroyed. I change the electronics in them. As a traveling guy, I like cheap guitars. I like things I can replace when I get home, if it doesn’t come back. I wouldn’t want to travel with a $3,500 ES-335. Instead, I build one that sounds the way I want it to sound, and if it gets destroyed, I can buy another one when I get there.
After decades using a clean tone, you've started using effects in just the past few years, on albums like your duo recordings with Jamie Saft, and your trio record, Shock Axis. I think this was a pretty surprising change for a lot of listeners. What precipitated that change?
The sense that I could do it my own way. I have issues with using stomp pedals for certain sounds. I’m not a rock player. I don’t have songs where I use a certain sound. I wanted to add to the sonic complexity of what I do, so in some of my music with effects, I’m using a ring modulator, for example, to expand the envelope … the inflection of the notes I play.
There’s a very deliberate methodology in everything I do. On Shock Axis, the issue was how can I play in this flaming-locomotive-careening-off-a-cliff kind of way, with really serious precision and consistently driving intensity. I had to configure that and come up with the sound that had enough looseness in it and enough precision in it so I could accomplish that. So, a lot of times I configure the strip of pedals to do that sort of thing.
I limit them to things I feel I can really improvise with, meaning that sometimes I don’t know what’s going to happen when I use them. I’m trying to deal with these contingencies in improvisation. Sometimes, I like being at the edge of nowhere in what I play, so I can make some decisions and make the music really interesting. I want the invention to occur as we’re doing it. In a very tightly configured kind of way, I want a lot of risk, so I tend to use pedals that enhance the risk.
I love the idea of enhancing the risk. That’s a great way to continue to keep your music fresh.
It’s an adventure, and there are points in it where you fail and points in it where you’re lost and where you’re confused and where you succeed. All kinds of things happen if you use this as a sort of trail that you go down, which is why I called my book Perpetual Frontier. If you keep going with this kind of idea, new things can happen.
At this point in my life as a creative person, and for the last 15, 18 years, I’ve been intent on having every day be a beginning, like the beginning. “Okay, let me see what I can do now.” There’s things I know how to do, my default playing—things I’ve developed that I can use. I’m always trying to put myself in the position where I almost don’t know, so I can solve another problem. Because to me, the solving of a musical problem is invention, and that is much more interesting than doing what I’ve always done. It allows for endless possibilities.
Joe Morris appears here with his classic setup of a black Les Paul Custom plugged straight into his silverface Fender Deluxe Reverb. This full-set improvisation gives a great introduction to Morris’ signature style. Listen to how he and the rhythm section approach dynamics and density, and build their own vocabulary in a conversational manner. Check out the 12-minute mark for a particularly burning excerpt.