Joe Morris, William Parker and Gerland Cleaver - "Exosphere" (Altitude)
It’s always a pleasure for these ears to dig into the unique jittery burble of guitarist Joe Morris. With a terrific sense of space and a deft articulation that’s highlighted by his unvarnished, reverb-less clean tone, Morris’s phrasing and the intensities of his attack rarely fail to get my blood circulating along with him. In recent years, he’s been taking more gigs as a bassist, but thankfully neither he nor labels like AUM Fidelity have stopped documenting his work as a leader on his chief instrument. Indeed, the label was in charge of half a month at The Stone (John Zorn’s East Village venue) last year, and Altitude documents all of a first set and part of a second set in the company of long-standing pals bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver.
Despite their familiarity with each other, Altitude is the first documentation of their work as a trio. You’d never know that, though, given how perfectly in sync they are on these four slices. Morris, in particular, is now so deep into his thing, so immediately recognizable yet continually finding new wrinkles, variations, and avenues to explore, that I’m tempted to liken his intensive focus to Evan Parker’s. But as compelling as Morris is from note one, it’s the group sound that impresses here. They open “Exosphere” with a dry, flinty series of exchanges that find Parker at his most languorous and probing alongside Cleaver’s polyrhythmic sizzle, while Morris lets loose here a barrage and there a tasty, dialed-back groove. These players exude such organic flow and effervescent energy without indulging in excess — taking care at each moment to craft statements of complex polyphony that pour out with such rapidity — that it’s hard to take it all in.
It’s always a treat to listen to Parker indefatigably do his thing, but I confess that I was riveted more by Cleaver’s incredible snare work, driven by both subtlety and power in ways that facilitate and complement Morris’s continual varying of pace, attack, and intervallic focus. Listen to how his tight work with brushes continually cajoles Morris into some of his most sprightly, dancing phrases — or to his muscular push-pull exchanges in the midst of “Thermosphere” (which also boasts some bomb-dropping neo-funk against hyperspeed sawing from Parker). The music is elegant and buoyant, but can turn on a dime and enter clanking, neo-industrial territory just as easily. “Troposphere” takes the music to a different space, filled with rhythmic synergy and a feel not unlike one of those Parker/Hamid Drake duets with frame drum. The groove is deep, and the ritual vibe strong (right down to some committed vocalizing). A terrific bass/drum duo flows into the concluding “Mesosphere,” with Morris entering at length via some spacious daubing, diving in and out of the groove (there are almost hints here of his early recording Sweatshop, the kind of thing that shows how continuous Morris’s path has been, even if the surface inflections sometimes sound different).
Altitude is another slice of state of the art improvising from these players, and yet more documentation of Morris’s mastery. Hard to say where they’ll climb next, but for now, this cruising altitude is pretty damn heady.