Bassist Chris Morrissey hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Like other Twin City-natives drummer Dave King and saxophonist Mike Lewis, Morrissey wears quite a lot of hats (okay, maybe not these kinds of hats like King). Anyway, you never quite know where Morrissey is going to play on a given night. He could backing up pop singers like Andrew Bird and Sara Bareilles (for whom Morrissey is the music director). He could be holding sway at Rockwood Music Hall for a regular gig with guitar hero Jim Capilongo, or as a part of drummer Mark Guiliana’s jazz band. Or he could be leading his own groups, like his quartet with Guiliana, Aaron Parks, and Mike Lewis that released the critically-acclaimed album North Hero (Sunnyside) in 2013.
While it has always been common for jazz musicians to moonlight in pop music (like bassist Richard Davis and drummer Connie Kay playing on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks), Morrissey doesn’t just see pop music as a day job—the sounds and forms of contemporary music refract their way through Morrissey’s own compositions. While the music on North Hero was instrumental jazz colored with the energy and immediacy of pop, the music for Morrissey’s newest project goes in a different direction. For his new group Standard Candle, Morrissey has written a series of songs for a band of singer-instrumentalists.
Featuring guitarist Gray McMurray, saxophonist Mike Lewis, and drummer Josh Dion (who will all sing as well), Standard Candle is the result of a Jazz Gallery 2014-2015 Residency Commission, a program that helps support new work in the New York jazz community. We sat down with Morrissey this week to talk about his new, exciting project and his evolution as songwriter.
The Jazz Gallery: First, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you came together with The Jazz Gallery as the first commissioned composer in this Residency Series.
Chris Morrissey: The first part of that question predates the residency and the commission. I always heard that The Jazz Gallery was a place where a connection had to be made, if you wanted to participate in the jazz scene in New York City. Through Sunnyside, which is the record label that puts my music out, I got connected with musicians who were frequenters of The Jazz Gallery—Nir Felder, Aaron Parks, Ben Wendel, Mark Guiliana. I played there as a leader a couple of times, as a sideman a couple times, then got to know Rio [Sakairi, Artistic Director of The Jazz Gallery]. The Gallery was incredibly supportive throughout that time, and the commission is an extension of that. I was very moved, and here we are today, a few days away from performing this new music.
TJG: So what has this position as a recipient of the commission allowed you to do musically, in terms of the project’s scope?
CM: You know, the main thing was that it instilled a confidence and sense of job surrounding the creative process. Simply the gesture, the vote of confidence in me, made me realize that if other people in my community are interested in what I can come up with, I’d better give that the respect of showing up to the craft every day. So for the last year or so, knowing that I had this sort of end goal, this thing that was expected of me, I could approach it like a job in a way that I’d always sort of romanticized.
TJG: To get into the specifics of the projects a little bit: You’ve been called a musician who wears many hats, from rocker to quartet leader to composer, arranger and director. How did you choose musicians for this project who would match your versatility?
CM: Well, after I got the call from Rio, these guys were the first thing to appear in my mind. It wasn’t sound, or work, or anything visual. It was these specific guys. Besides just being the musicians in New York who I happen to play with a lot, they’re also the ones who have moved me the most in my quest to Mind my musical team. Of course, that team extends beyond the band that I’m bringing to the Gallery.
Josh Dion and Grey McMurray are two guys that I play a lot of music with. I play in the Jim Campilongo trio with Josh, and my own band and Grey’s band with Grey. To me, they’re an example of a rare thing, something analogous to the way I like to hear music and how I hope my music is heard. Kind of an uncategorizable, un-genre-specific motherfuckery. Josh is like this funk-drumming soul singer, who is also an incredibly musical free player. Grey happens to be holding a guitar but isn’t just a guitarist. And Mike Lewis, who I grew up with, saxophonist who plays on both of my quartet records, is a guy for whom when I’m writing something, it’s his voice that I hear. You’re never getting something you expect from them. They all share a reverence to serving the moment as improvisers, aside from being some of my best friends.
TJG: What are some of the major musical themes that underpin this project?
CM: I’ve written for a rock band that I sing in, I’ve written for quartets, and this represents the combination of those two things. It’s something that could be presented as comfortably at The Bowery Ballroom as at The Jazz Gallery, in that it is very much drawing from my rock influences in terms of instrumentation, but I wrote many of the songs on piano, and the piece has a lot of freedom and improvisation woven into it.
Thematically, there are lyrics in about half the songs, where we’re all singing. I think both musically and lyrically, I’ve spent a lot of the last few years diving into readings on the merger of science and spirituality. I’ve gotten into these from spiritual practices that have come to me through yoga, and from seeing that this is a moment in human history where we’re faced with stark, un-ignorable realities about how close we may be to having seismic global shifts in tragic ways, and how that’s being responded to in humanity, accepting the links and oneness between universe and spirit, between humanity and nature. The Neil deGrasse Tyson show Cosmos really hit me hard, Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction really hit me hard. A lot of these things were on my mind as I wrote. I went into some of this science and spirituality stuff at the acceptance gala, and I wanted to impress upon people a promise that the music is more romantic than all that.