In the spirit of Midwestern-bred bands like Happy Apple and The Bad Plus, bassist Chris Morrissey has cultivated a musical language that merges an expressive directness from rock with a penchant for formal experimentation and fierce improvisation. For the past few years, Morrissey’s main outlet as a composer and bandleader has been the group Standard Candle, featuring guitarist Gray McMurray, drummer Josh Dion, and a rotating saxophone chair of Mike Lewis and Nick Videen. Building off material written for a Jazz Gallery Residency Commission in 2015, Morrissey released the album Laughing and Laughing last year.
This Thursday, June 20, Morrissey will convene a new group at the Gallery, featuring trumpeter Philip Dizack, pianist Jon Cowherd, guitarist Ryan Ferreira, and drummer Dan Rieser. We caught up with Morrissey by phone to talk about his plans for the group and reimagining old songs in new ways.
The Jazz Gallery: You’re bringing a new band to the Gallery this week. Do you have a new book of music as well?
Chris Morrissey: I’m doing a lot of the same music that came out of my Gallery commission from a few years ago, but with different personnel. There are some newer pieces that were written with a similar identity to the commission music. I’ve added a pianist to the band, and I’ve changed the melody instrument from saxophone to trumpet. I feel that the last couple of years have been me taking stock of my catalog and choosing the music that I still wanted to play in this new setting. I wanted to pick songs that were still true to me, still current to me, and try them in this new environment.
TJG: When you did the original commission project, you spoke about wanting to activate the rock side of your music more explicitly. Now that you’re going back through your compositions—which include stuff for more jazz-oriented instrumentations, too—are you finding aesthetic points of contact between different pieces that you haven’t seen before?
CM: They all share DNA, so song selection had more to do with what songs I liked the most and would work in a quintet. I wanted to see the catalog with fresh eyes, and get clearer and simpler with how and when I present it.
I’ve also wanted to become much more flexible with how I present this music. I took this year and got somewhat-skilled in the music notation software program Sibelilus. I wanted to make clear documents of the music so that I’m not only tethered to the people who have the music memorized. It’s a little bit of a concession, because a working band is the dream. And as a Minnesotan, coming out of the school of Happy Apple, where dense music was always memorized, and personnel was not malleable. The reality in New York is different. I feel that the NYC scene rewards people who are good readers.
Ultimately, I took on this chart-writing as a means to clarify how I want the music played. Also, I can now book shows with a larger community of musicians that don’t have to take a month to memorize a ton of music, which is what Josh and Grey and Mike and I did for Standard Candle.
TJG: I’m interested in how you’re working with these two different songwriting traditions. On the one hand, there’s this band songwriting tradition where material is worked on in a group and transmitted aurally. On the other, there’s the more commercial—like Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building—tradition where a single songwriter writes down a song that could be performed potentially by many different artists. How does the music change when it gets translated from one method to another?
CM: The arrangements for some of the older things were fleshed out as a band with Grey McMurray and Josh Dion and Mike Lewis, and later, Nick Videen. They brought that music to life. The arrangements, and how they deepened with those particular players, made their way into the notated arrangements. It still bears the marks of that band, for sure. Now, just because there are different personalities in the band, it takes on a new shape.
While I’ve talked about wanting to write music that I can just plug different people into, I want to make clear that this show isn’t some kind of reading session. We have rehearsed a lot over the last few months, and chart-editing is like my new full time job. So there hasn’t been less effort in the cultivation. But presenting the musicians with a chart is a way to define what I want and what I hear and hope to present it clearly enough that they aren’t bogged down by a nebulous conceptual description from a rehearsal. In the last few rehearsals, I feel like I’ve gotten to a new place, the place where I wanted to present these songs.
For all of the strengths of a free, kind of socialist band, there are some weaknesses. It’s nice to see the other side of that and go into a rehearsal with a clear sense of what I want the music to sound like and have that backed up in the chart. I still get to surround myself with some of my best friends in the music community and see what they bring to the music.
TJG: From a superficial standpoint, adding this specificity to the music via notation takes away from the performers’ freedom. But there are a lot of musicians—Stravinsky definitely comes to mind—who talk about specificity and notation as a way to increase creativity and expressive freedom.
CM: I feel that in this band, how free the musicians feel is a measure of how clear the chart is. I feel that some pieces of music can be built on discovering how it works live, like how one thing transitions to another. But at the end of the day with my music, I hope that I’m bringing as clear a picture of what I want the music to be, rather than relying on the other players to flesh out something I haven’t given enough thought to. If that sounds militant, I think it kind of is. I think it came out of years of presenting this music the opposite way. I stand by that, and think we reached some peaks that won’t be replicable in any other group. They were unique times with a band presenting music that way.
What I’m excited about now is that I’m finding a new way to approach what brought me anxiety with that band, namely, how to tell people to do something differently, while simultaneously wanting to respect their own choices on their instruments. The old band could make the songs sound drastically different from gig to gig, and I’ve realized that at this point in my life, I want to take more responsibility for how the music sounds each time I perform it. Doing that is a skill, and some days I feel like I’m really good at it, like as someone who spends a lot of time as a music director in pop music settings. But when it’s my own music, it’s different.
TJG: I’m wondering if it’s also a question of fit between material and method. Like some songs are probably best learned by ear because so much of what makes them work are the ornaments and inflections—things that are hard to notate. Other songs—like I’m thinking of Stephen Sondheim off the top of my head—have such specificity in terms of harmony and counterpoint and form that notation is really important. Do you feel that your process with this music toward notation reflects something essential about their nature?
CM: They were designed with the band ethos, and they worked with that band ethos. I think it has more to do with the challenges of presenting the music on a regular basis than with the nature of the material itself. The tendency of playing the same material with the same people for a long time is to deconstruct. The chart shows that some particular thing that I put in the demo is fixed, and not a template to follow loosely. It’s about including everything that are essential components. To move away from deconstruction and abstraction and towards distillation. The dream with this group and the older group is the same, and this is just a different lens to see it through.
TJG: You’ve been focusing on this contained set of repertoire for a few years now, while I feel that the “jazz market,” if you will, encourages or embraces players who are always writing new music. Why do you think you’ve gone against the grain here and focused so intently on these songs?
CM: I feel that my slowing down, or being less prolific as a writer, is a clearing out of space that allows me to tap into aspects of my musical life that I’ve maybe neglected recently. I’m hoping that this act inspires more writing and creates space for me to imagine new music. Writing more music is a part of me that I’m hoping to wake up.
There are a lot of reasons why the writing has slowed. Part of it is that my appetite for self-betterment—which I consider composing to be a part of—has gone way down as a result of everything political these past few years. My worldview took a hit. A malaise has sort of crept in that has made writing seem kind of futile, which I know it’s not. But it’s just that these past few years haven’t felt as fertile for writing. That said, while I’ve written fewer songs in the last 3 years, I have written a couple of my favorite things…
TJG: In terms of situating yourself as an artist today, do you feel like your focus on your existing repertoire is a way of rooting your artistic practice while the world fills with increasing uncertainty?
CM: I believe in that. I believe in a high purpose for art, but I can also get turned off by art that has this particular art-to-the-rescue agenda. The art can have this unnaturally-pronounced high purpose. That’s maybe another aspect of composing that’s turned me off lately. I think there can be great and effective political art, but I’m more interested in what the sounds are and what they express at the base personal level. I think the art can shrink when it becomes more about the extra-artistic purpose or concept than the sounds themselves or just primal expression.
Art that strives to be super topical makes something that should be uncontainable and puts it in a container. In a cynical way, it’s easier to sell when it’s in a container. It looks great for grants, it looks great to promoters. The danger is that it dilutes the emotional content of what could be a strange, uncontained morsel of humanity. It should be shocking or accessible or euphoric or sad just because it is. I don’t want anyone to tell me what the song is about.
Chris Morrissey plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, June 20, 2019. The group features Mr. Morrissey on bass, Philip Dizack on trumpet, Jon Cowherd on piano, Ryan Ferreira on guitar, and Dan Rieser on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.