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Joe Morris & Barre Phillips - Elm City Duets 2006

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Artist: Joe Morris & Barre Phillips

Album: Elm City Duets 2006

Label: Clean Feed

Review date: Nov. 21, 2008

Predating the pivotal Four Improvisations with Anthony Braxton by a year, Elm City Duets 2006 documents guitarist Joe Morris in equally auspicious company with a doyen of improvisation. Barre Phillips’ credentials go back to the 1960s as a pioneer in extended techniques on the bull fiddle. His sphere of influence remains expansive, having at least peripheral impact on Morris’ own investigations on the instrument. Here, Morris sticks to his other axe. Though mainly known for a singular single-note style, Morris has been morphing his guitar into facsimiles of other sound implements since at least as early as the “Mnemonic Device” series on Flip and Spike (1992). That chameleonic ability is in full effect in this context. There’s also a direct line drawn to an earlier collaboration in Morris’ discography, Invisible Weave on the long defunct No More imprint that paired him with William Parker. On that date, Morris played electric. Here, it’s all acoustic and that decision sharpens the dry, sometimes stark flavor of the improvised interplay.

“Ninth Square” builds from an abrasive chatter of scraped and sawed strings in mapping a playing field of wide dynamics. Morris evinces amazing arco control, sounding like a metallic violin and holding his own with the master Phillips, who plays an instrument inherently conducive to it. The sardonically-titled “Normal Stuff” has lots of rubbing friction and knocking patter to yield the semblance of industrial machinery. These texture-oriented pieces alternate with more melodically-grounded ventures, like the disc’s delicate centerpiece “June Song,” where Phillips warmly articulates pizzicato contrasts with Morris’ ringing string harmonics that take on resonant properties akin to Gamelan bowls. With “Spirals,” it’s the reverse; Morris picks bright note parcels against the more plangent constructions of Phillips’ pumice-grinding arco. “Translate” measures frequent pauses between collective passages with Morris’ customary tightly-packed clusters unwound to better reveal constituents.

“Recite” turns attention to the familiar elliptic patterns that have been part of Morris’ vernacular for decades. Phillips plumbs the spaces between the brittle progressions with bulbous pizzicato, the elasticity of his plucks gleaning full advantage of the room’s acoustics and natural sound decay. Even the bassist’s breathing is audible in the quieter miniature moments. On “Saved Stones,” Morris’ blue notes pile up like bent bottle caps, vested with similarly corrugated edges. Phillips responds with a barrage of bridge-slapping and low buzzing. Only in the closing minutes of the lengthy and otherwise action-packed finale “Got Into Some Things” do the two seem slightly uncertain as to direction, ultimately landing with more of a resigned sigh than emphatic shout. While nothing as yet in the guitarist’s catalog can match the magnitude of the Braxton set, this disc is a good companion in illustrating the heights kindred improvisers can scale in tandem.

By Derek Taylor

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