Monday, August 24, 2009


[The following is not meant as a personal attack on Joe Morris. I know Joe, I like him, I am a fan of his music. This is a statement about free jazz in general, with him as an example.]

Do relentlessly prolific out-jazz musicians sabotage themselves by tossing new CDs into a flood-tide of superficially similar releases? Today I listened to two upcoming albums - Fire!'s You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago, on Rune Grammofon, and the Joe Morris Quartet's Today on Earth, on AUM Fidelity. Fire! (punctuation in original) is a new project featuring saxophonist Mats Gustafsson (who also plays electronics and Fender Rhodes); this is but the latest entry in an intimidatingly deep catalog that includes work with the groups The Thing, Two Bands and a Legend, Original Silence, Diskaholics Anonymous Trio, and collaborations with Peter Brötzmann and equally session-happy drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. (All this was garnered from a cursory glance at the website for the Smalltown Superjazz label, which puts most of this material out.) The Joe Morris Quartet album is his eighth full-length release of 2009, his sixth as a leader or co-leader. (I've heard four of the discs he led or co-led, and the two on which he was a sideman. They're all very good.) He appeared on 11 albums in 2008, and has played on approximately 45 releases (my eyes may have glazed over while counting) since the turn of the millennium. Now granted, this doesn't come close to the audio diary-keeping of Anthony Braxton, but is Braxton really a model to be emulated in this regard? I guess what I'm wondering is, what's the business rationale for doing this? I assume that there must be one. Can it be pure fatalism - a conviction that one is destined to sell only a few hundred or a couple of thousand copies of each album, so frequent trips to the well (the well being the free jazz fan's wallet/bank account) are excusable? Is there a presumption that free jazz fans are, indeed, willing to subsidize a favorite artist to this degree? Because speaking from personal experience, I can offer a few reasons why I think this is an ill-advised strategy.

1) I just don't think there are that many people willing to buy five or ten Joe Morris CDs every year. I am a free jazz fan, but I am also a critic; therefore, I get albums in the mail, for free. As much as I enjoy these records, and have written favorable reviews of some of them, if I wasn't getting them for free I don't think I could be convinced to purchase more than one or two of them. Because...

1a) A flood-tide of material, to me at least, only serves to devalue each individual disc. Again, drawing from personal experience: I decided I wanted to hear all the Blue Note releases by Freddie Hubbard. There were eight of them (Blue Spirits, Breaking Point, Goin' Up, Here to Stay, Hub Cap, Hub-Tones, Open Sesame and Ready for Freddie - if I'm missing any, please alert me in comments). I found that totally manageable. Joe Morris's discography, by contrast, numbers in the dozens and is scattered across 26 labels, some of which no longer exist. Hearing all of it is pretty clearly an unmanageable task. And even if I was able to stack all of his releases up in front of me, how would I decide which to prioritize? Sure, each one is a beautiful and unique snowflake, but taken together they are a snowdrift. Each piece of the whole becomes insignificant, each album or CD no more than proof that a recording session occurred. In this way, the title of the new album, Today on Earth, appears heavy with irony. Today, Joe Morris went into the recording studio with some other musicians. In a week or so, he'll probably do it again. And on and on. When an artist puts out one album every two or three years, that album has a gravity, an impact, that simply would be lost if it were the third release to hit stores under his name that month. Which leads me to...

1b) What is a neophyte listener to make of this? For decades, it's been pretty easy to trace your way through jazz if you so choose. Pick up an album someone more knowledgeable recommends. If you like it, make a list of the personnel, whose names will more than likely be on the back. Go find some more records they play on. Repeat as often as you like. And that can still happen. But it seems to me that the almost compulsive productivity of some in the free/avant-jazz community only serves to baffle and intimidate the new listener, who will gaze upon a shelf in, say, Downtown Music Gallery containing a dozen or more titles by a single musician and say, in effect, "I don't know...this one? That one? Ah, the hell with it." You know those scenes in movies where the immigrant from some impoverished nation arrives in America and is dumbstruck by the awe-inspiring variety of, say, the grocery store's breakfast cereal aisle? That's how a brand-new potential free jazz fan will feel, gazing upon the shelves in a record store that even stocks this stuff - or, say, the vendors' section at the Vision Festival or a similar event.

It may seem weird and counterintuitive, but I believe that if free jazz artists want to start playing to audiences beyond the already converted, they need to make fewer records, not more. Let people catch up, dammit!


Joe Morris said...

Hey Phil:

There is no irony in the title "Today on Earth". It's meant as a simple reminder to be aware of your life. The title is not about just another day in the studio either. In fact, I spent a long time planning and writing the music for the CD as a follow-up to "Beautiful Existence". I don't have a business rationale. I never made any attempt to cross over into a wider audience either and I don't plan to start doing that. I'm comfortable being where I am. I play what I believe in and I try to do that with as little contrivance as possible.
I am lucky to have music pouring out of me, to have so many great people to play with and to be able to get my music released. Ecpect many more recording in the future. So far I've managed to keep from repeating myself. To you I might be doing too much, but to me it's the tip of the musical iceberg.


Phil Freeman said...

Joe -

Good to hear from you. I'm glad you noticed that my post contained a lot of questions - Marco Eneidi linked it on his Facebook page after I put it up on mine, and some other folks have been treating it more like a lecture than an inquiry. Good luck with everything, and hope to see you again soon.

Tony Renner said...

i'd love to play some of joe's music on my radio show here in st. louis -- and world wide on the internet...

-- tony