jazz meets electronics

Jeff Morris


You’re going to experience some unfamiliar musical moments, maybe uncomfortable at times, in conversation with the familiar. I hope you’re so brave as to glimpse the beauty I’ve found in such things and, in letting the music take you to unexplored territory, reflect on all music-making, technology, culture, or life, from a new perspective. Follow the music some- where new, and see what lessons become obvious when viewed from there.


Since the advent of sound recording, adventurous composers have recorded sounds and transformed them with the tools of the day, to discover new musical sounds and structures. But this has largely been done in the studio, not on stage. It hasn’t been so easy to record sounds, manipulate them expressively, and play them live until our generation, so the “tape music” tradition developed mainly as one of composing, not performing. Even today, I’ve felt something missing. There’s a lot more live processing in use now, but the electronics are often just highlighting other instruments, trailing behind them instead of having their own voice. There’s live looping, but it usually tries to duplicate the person on stage rather than make something new. There’s live turntablism, but it relies on pre-recorded sound materials, usually from some other artist. Vocalists sometimes mimic the stutters and echoes of electronic effects, but except for adding brief inflections to other instruments’ sounds or providing sound effects to evoke an image of something breaking, the electronics rarely get to sing their own native song.


My goal is to make free expressive use of the full potential of free live sampling, free of special effects roles, cold repetition, and copying other people’s albums. I use technology to turn the practice of “sampling” (quoting other recordings) upon itself, capturing material live dur- ing improvised performances—so you witnessed the original, saw the copy lose its original “aura,” and saw it become something new, influencing the other musicians within the same performance. I go in with no sounds or synths, just open ears and an open mic. I use technology as the compositional premise, not just another musical instrument, special effect, or convenience. This is the sound of appropriation itself. Instead of overlooking those glitches and awkward moments of life with technology, I want to let the native voice of the technology sing richly, so we can more deeply understand the possibilities and sacrifices of technology in human life, and the value of our own creative humanness amidst the technology that pervades our lives.


Working as a composer for so long, I missed feeling mu- sic being made instantly under my fingertips. I missed playing free improvisations (usually on trumpet) with the New World Ensemble in Tallahassee, Florida. So, I started exploring ways to make my music live. The interface be- came the question: not only how to build my tools as an instrument with instant control, but also how to fit into an ensemble of other live performers without trampling over them. Free jazz innovator Ornette Coleman saw a similar challenge with the piano, which he avoided for almost forty years. It’s hard to avoid dominating the harmony and rhythm of the group when you can play so many notes on one piano—even more challenging for a computer! On the other hand, I’ve always been inspired by complex inter- twined textures in the music of Lennie Tristano, the Dave Brubeck Octet, composers in Stan Kenton’s circle, Conlon Nancarrow, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman.


By putting performers and myself into carefully construct- ed interactive performance situations (or predicaments!), the intense performative crucible brings out musical moments none of us would have conceived on our own. I most often use a sampler instrument (which I programmed in Max), controlled by two Wiimotes (Nintendo Wii Remote controllers) that let me grab sound from my improvising partners on the fly and mold it into my own musical voice live—you could say this has been my primary instrument since 2007. In “Upzy,” I use this instrument to take on the role of the drummer at times and soloist at other times. Throughout the album, I find myself playing many roles in the ensemble, some hard to describe, like Brian Eno’s early synthesizer work in Roxy Music and his early solo albums—sometimes there’s a musical sensibility to be had that’s not so singable, danceable, or easy to label. For “A Solo is the nth Melody,” I created software that grabs twelve bars of improvisation from Karl and loops it, freezing the passing melody into a traditional jazz “head.” We solo over it as it gradually erodes into the digits that make it up. In “Into,” my software carves electronic drum sounds from the live performers (by smearing their sound across time and cutting different shapes out of that sonic broadcloth). Its rigid timekeeping is juxtaposed with Joe’s free, expressive drumming on found objects, and it gradually accelerates beyond the point of rhythm, into a thick glitch soup with all of us swimming around inside. In it, I am only sampling the vibraphone and playing it backwards, because later, in “Unwind,” you hear us playing “Into,” backwards. That means the only forward-playing vibraphone you hear in “Unwind” comes from my sampler instrument; the copy is the most normal sound, for once. At times, you’ll hear a bass instrument accompanying the group. It’s carved from the group’s sound like the electronic drums in “Into,” and it chooses pitches in response to Karl, as I’ve trained it to do.


Through diverse interfaces like these, I’m composing behaviors, tendencies, terrains of possibilities, but not the exact notes you hear. It’s kind of like building a fun house hall of mirrors: you only see what you bring into it, but your presence illuminates the invisible structures built into it. In this musical adventure, I’m honored to be joined by such creative minds as free jazz legend Karl Berger, New York (via Germany) drummer Joe Hertenstein who’s always up to tackle anything, and visual artist April Zanne Johnson, who created the cover art for this album as a collage of perceptual responses to the music.


Thanks to: Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris (no relation) for laying the groundwork for improvised music in his visit to Tallahassee, where I accidentally fell in with the right crowd of curious musicians; Jane Piper Clendinning who sort of tricked me into appreciating more adventurous music; Joseph “Butch” Rovan for inspiring my early work with inter- active electronics; Bill Kennedy for showing me you can swing in any circumstance; Bill Peterson for the compositional advice, “That’s what you do: you take something, and you mess with it”—which I’ve been doing ever since; the Atlantic Center for the Arts for providing the residencies where I originally met and played with Karl, Joe, and April; Texas A&M University’s Vice President for Research, Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, Crawley Family Faculty Fellowship, and Department of Performance Studies for making this project possible; and of course my family and friends for their support and patience as I followed my opportunities and intuition to where I am today.


—Jeff Morris



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Ravello Records is the contemporary classical label imprint of audio production house PARMA Recordings. Dedicated to highlighting forward thinking composers and musicians from around the world, the New England-based label's eclectic catalog offers listeners a cross-section of today's up-and-coming innovators in orchestral, chamber, and experimental music.

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