May 29, 2009

Joe Morris / Lowell Davidson

While we were in New York City last month, I went with a friend to see the Joe Morris Trio at The Stone on April 3rd. I had been aware of Morris since way back when I lived in Boston, but was always kind of lukewarm about him if only because he plays (mostly) electric guitar yet eschews all attendant electrical aspects: no distortion; no effects; no feedback, no reverb. And he seldom bends a string or plays more than one (cleanly articulated) note at a time. Now, I always especially liked his Singularity record on AUM Fidelity, since the solo acoustic guitar set did not raise any unrealistic expectations of how I think the instrument should sound. But I also understand that my own biases and expectations can often be an unnecessary impediment to my enjoyment of music that tweaks those biases and expectations. So, I really was excited to see him perform live. We sat in the front row, not three feet from Morris, where I could closely observe what he was doing. The trio, consisting of Morris on electric guitar (a Washburn semi-hollowbody through a small Fender amp), Steve Lantner on piano, and Luther Gray on drums, played three long improvisations in the generous, seventy-five minute set. I was immediately blown away by Morris’s ability to spin endlessly intricate lines across such vast expanses of time, and, watching him play, I came to appreciate the subtlety of his technique: the widely variable range between dampened and ringing strings is always expertly controlled and deeply expressive, even at the fastest tempos. And when he did choose to play more than one note at a time, the effect was thrilling, at times intensely cathartic – there was a long moment during the second piece where the room seemed to levitate. It was an enormously satisfying concert and I have since been listening to his records with new, welcoming ears.

They were selling CDs at the door so, before the concert, I picked up Anthony Braxton/Joe Morris: Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (Clean Feed CF 100) at a very reasonable price. I was already a committed Braxton fan and, besides, I thought maybe I could get Morris to sign it. After the set, and nearly awestruck, I nervously approached him with my request and he was actually most gracious about it. We chatted a bit and I told him I thought he had a unique way of playing the electric guitar. He replied that he was trying to play the guitar like a horn, “like Jimmy Lyons.” I thought that was a revealing comment and it resonated with my own sudden revelations. As for the Braxton/Morris box set, well, it’s over four hours of music and I have only listened to it all the way through twice. I can only say it is beautiful, very compelling music, downright lyrical at times. Having never played together prior to this recording, it is remarkable how attuned they are to each other and how fearless their epic improvisations. I usually prefer to hear Braxton playing his own compositions rather than just freely improvising, but, as Braxton himself points out in the liner notes: “even though [the music is] improvised, it has a very strong compositional dimension to it in the sense of movement through time and space and interaction dynamics between the two of us.” Indeed, the music never feels ad hoc or static, but consciously develops a deep-form structure over each of the hour-long improvisations. Morris is a perfect foil for Braxton’s excursions on the full range of saxophones, contrabass to sopranino, unfurling a variety of approaches from single-note counterpoint to almost-jazzy chordal accompaniment. OK, I’m sold. If Joe Morris can successfully go toe-to-toe with Mr. Braxton, then he truly is a master musician!


The following day, my friend and I went to the world’s greatest record store (for us fans of weirdo avant-garde music anyway), Downtown Music Gallery. While spending a good long while combing the racks and chatting with Bruce and Mike, they put on a CD consisting of some squiggly acoustic guitar, achingly strained bowed bass, and…trombone?! It was totally gripping.

RGC: What is this?!
BLG: MVP – LSD – it just came out.
RGC: Wow! Joe Morris?! We just saw him last night and I wouldn’t have even recognized him! I gotta get this!
So, onto the growing pile of CDs it went. But it wasn’t until I returned home that I could really examine what I had: MVP – LSD: The Graphic Scores of Lowell Skinner Davidson (Riti CD10). MVP is Joe Morris on guitar, John Voigt on bass, and Tom Plsek on trombone. LSD is, of course, pianist/multi-instrumentalist/composer Lowell Skinner Davidson. The disc consists of ten compositions by Davidson (and one group improvisation) and it is every bit as wonderful as I remembered it. I am kind of ashamed to admit I had never heard of Lowell Davidson before now. Born in 1941, he was a Harvard-educated biochemist who jeopardized his post-graduate scholarship by traveling to New York to play piano with Ornette Coleman in the 1960s. He recorded one LP for ESP-Disk’ in 1965 (see below) but, shortly thereafter, was badly injured in a lab accident that radically curtailed his burgeoning music career. Davidson managed to remain semi-active on the fringes of the Boston music scene in the nineteen-seventies and eighties where Morris, Voigt, and Plsek worked with him until Davidson’s death in 1990.

According to Morris’s liner notes, Davidson drew on his background as a biochemist in his music: “He often declared that new sounds had the capacity to reformulate the biochemistry of the brain. He was sure that had to happen with music and that there was no point in playing music that didn’t reach for that result.” To facilitate this goal, Davidson relied (in part) on a self-conceived system of graphic notation. The compositions featured here were written on 3x5 notecards, with arbitrary staves “that veer off somewhere or fade off the card completely,” amorphous blobs of proportional noteheads, and swathes of richly evocative color. The seeming dichotomy between composition and improvisation is squarely addressed through the use of these graphic scores. Morris says: “They offer the player a specific guide toward randomness and imagination, a requirement that they be read as regular notation, but that the results find a balance between melodic line and pure sound.” The music is something more than mere free improvisation with each piece cohering into a cogent, unified whole that is no doubt the result of the musician’s focused concentration on an external stimulus – even if that stimulus is utterly abstract and deliberately non-specific. Each player explores a range of extended techniques from Morris’s plinking and scraping, Voigt’s sul ponticello bowing, and Plesk’s gurgling and buzzing mutes; but such extremes are balanced with more conventional instrumental approaches and a delicate, selfless approach to chamber-like ensemble dynamics. Listening to this hour-plus-long CD is a contemplative, prayerful, experience. Or, rather, this is music that may indeed alter the biochemistry of the brain as Davidson intended. Morris decribes Davidson’s too-short life as “a psychedelic-like search, pondering light and darkness, the constructs of the Universe, and a way of expressing them with music.” With this exquisite CD, MVP has realized Davidson’s most profound, evolutionary ambitions.


Naturally intrigued by the MVP disc, I soon thereafter picked up Lowell Davidson’s sole commercially available recording at Nashville’s finest record store, Grimey’s. Lowell Davidson Trio (ESP-Disk’ 1012) was recorded on July 27, 1965 thanks to the efforts of Ornette Coleman, who somehow convinced Bernard Stollman to sign Davidson to the fledgling label without so much as an audition. Accompanying him on this date are ESP label-mates, Gary Peacock (bass) and Milford Graves (drums) to comprise a typical piano trio that is anything but typical. Unfortunately, the sound quality is dry, boxy, closed in and, at times, downright distorted, with Graves’s extended kit swamped by bloated, ill-defined bass frequencies. Even so, Davidson’s uniquely brilliant musical conception is plainly apparent. At times, his piano playing reminds me of Andrew Hill, with his smeared notes, short-breathed phrasing and a harmonic sensibility that balances "in" and "out," tonal and atonal, "free" and composed. But, unlike Hill, Davidson is already wholly emancipated from any kind of “jazz tradition” and his compositions explore color, timbre, and gesture in a way that is sui generis. Much of the music is loosely modal and balletic in its rhythmic conception: flitting, leaping, and pirouetting here, stomping and stamping there; single-note runs alternating with blocky, chordal tuttis; grand, tremulous statements alternating with scumbled, scampering figuration. In this way, his approach resembles Cecil Taylor’s, but, again, the music sounds nothing like Taylor and points to a “third way” that is unprecedented. Peacock and Graves provide supple, sensitive, but at times overly-aggressive accompaniment, although the rough sound quality drastically distorts the instrumental balance. Davidson apparently led a working trio with David Izenson on bass and Paul Motian on drums around this time and it would be interesting to hear their (undoubtedly more intimately familiar) interpretations of this material. Quibbles aside, one should be grateful that this lone document of Lowell Davidson’s genius survives and, as such, it is unreservedly recommended. According to the liner notes, ESP-Disk’ is negotiating the release of Davidson’s self-produced cassettes from the nineteen-seventies and eighties and one hopes that this will come to fruition. It would go a long way towards rectifying the sad neglect of this visionary artist.


So, thank you, Mr. Morris – not only for your own superb musicianship – but also for exposing me to the music of Mr. Lowell Skinner Davidson!


Anonymous said...

There are recordings of Davidson floating around out there; I've been waiting and waiting for them to surface. A few years back, Paul Motian gave ECM's Manfred Eicher a reel to reel of some great stuff he recorded with Davidson (and I think Gary Peacock) back in the 60s -- apparently, Eicher lost it...

Rodger Coleman said...

Wow. That is just criminal!