Joe Morris Quartet - "Embarassment of Riches" (Today on Earth)
Coming off a fertile summer, Joe Morris is in the midst of a creative burst. No less than six discs have hit the street with him as a session leader. Today on Earth finds him fronting a quartet of familiars. Drummer Luther Gray is present on the majority of Morris’ discographical highlights from the past half-decade. Altoist Jim Hobbs and bassist Timo Shanko represent two thirds of the celebrated Fully Celebrated Orchestra, another Beantown creative music staple. All four men have common ground to spare and the close congeniality in their interplay makes for a date of uncommon quality.
Stylistically, the set sits comfortably with past efforts like Age of Everything and Beautiful Existence, sprouting out of a strong freebop foundation and pulling in related elements that only heighten the accessibility of the compositions. It’s a lengthy disc, with four out of the seven pieces surpassing ten minutes in duration, but the time seems to fly by. Tracks like the opening “Backbone” and the title piece work off tightly wound heads that cater to the inherent angularity in Morris and Hobbs’ singular methods of phrasing. The guitarist’s barbed fretwork is rife with coiled clusters of bent single notes that hook into the undulating rhythmic patterns spread out by Gray and Shanko. Morris is just as adept at shaping shimmering chords as colorful backdrops for Hobbs. The saxophonist darts and flutters, at times sounding like an aerated descendant of Dolphy and bolstering his zig-zagging lines with some of the sour astringency first popularized by Jackie McLean. The two men create some hair-raisingly consonant unisons on “Embarrassment of Riches”, a piece that lives up to the imagery of its title completely in terms of the arch musicianship on display. The closing “Imaginary Solutions” also contains a fair share of plectral and reed wizardry.
As good as those cuts are though, the album’s standout is “Animal”, a loping processional that harkens back to Morris’ early composition “Mombaccus” in its brooding groove. The leader’s affinity for African guitar is in ample evidence in a solo that is at once methodical and mysterious in its unveiling of a stream of gorgeous blues progressions across a swaying bass and drums canvas. “Ashes” resides at the relative other end of the ledger, an atmospheric dirge built on the back of bowed bass and tidal malleted percussion that never quite comes together despite a stirringly designed solo by Morris and raw-throated blowing from Hobbs.
Artistic fecundity can be a slippery condition. Put too much out in too fast a fashion and it sometimes leads to commercial saturation as one release becomes interchangeable with the next. Morris doesn’t have much to fret about on that score as each of his projects continues to carry a singular creative stamp.