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.
TJG: Phew. That’s a lot of weight to put on yourself as a composer at the piano.
CM: Well, these are just themes that I think naturally come out because of the time I spend reading and thinking about that stuff away from the piano. There are still lyrical themes that are personal and have to do with personal human experience, love, longing, acceptance, letting go. Things that have little to do with science. I know that stuff comes out, and I don’t think that’s rare. It’s nice when art is that way; someone’s personal expression, a combination of lifelong musical influence and life interests. My hope is that the music is nowhere as clunky as the explanation.
TJG: You’ve mentioned that the commissioned piece, “Standard Candle,” will feature everyone in the ensemble singing. Has that come to influence the way you write?
CM: Absolutely. When the personnel occurred to me early on, it was an idea that I had immediately. It was the personnel that gave me the idea. It’s not like I wrote a bunch of music where everyone has a singing part and hopefully they can pull it off. It’s completely because singing is an element of their musicianship. I could write three- and four-part harmonies, even rounds. Having that color available is luxurious. In rock music, and as a side man, that was a ready facet that I was looking forward to using in this arena. If you come to see “Standard Candle” not knowing anything about me, it may be a surprise to see us singing, in a hopefully unplaceable genre.
TJG: Speaking of musicians influencing your process, how important is rehearsal to your composition process? Do you come in with a finished arrangement, or are you making a lot of changes on the fly?
CM: There were kind of both approaches, but mostly finished arrangements. It’s always a very cool moment in the process of writing, the trust and letting go that takes place when you hand over the role to somebody else. The older I get and the more music I make, I’ve gravitated to an approach where the arrangement decision is in the person that you call, not what you try to impress upon that person. In Jim Campilongo’s and Mark Guiliana’s bands, they take that approach, where they kind of just say the key and “Here, I trust you.” So, as arranged as this music is, the best expression is going to come from allowing for something I didn’t consider, something greater than I could have imagined, by putting these fiery guys on stage with me.
TJG: What were some of the challenges in seeing the piece through to completion?
CM: If I’m ever blessed with this opportunity again, I would actually hope for less time between the commission and the performance. I’ve been done with the writing for a long time. I went to New Orleans in February with the intent of finishing some things. I did some writing there, but I realized that if anything, I had more time than I needed.
TJG: I think I’m confused about how having too much time was a challenge.
CM: [Laughs] Yeah, it sounds kind of counter-intuitive. I think I realized that I had enough material very early on. There’s stuff we’re not using—more than an hour of music has been written. Basically, I’m answering your question by saying it wasn’t challenging! This was something that I joyfully incorporated into my life. Rising to the challenge was something I’d been waiting for.
TJG: In your biography, it sounds like when you started writing more lyrical, narrative music in 2010, which culminated in Cannon Falls Forever, you uncovered a love for songwriting. How has that manifested itself in your work in the last five years, especially “Standard Candle”?
CM: The Cannon Falls Forever record was a profound experience for me. I spent so much time playing with and listening to great songwriters, but it was a way in which I always doubted myself: “Yes, I write, and yes, I draw some identity from sitting at the piano and coming up with songs, but I’m not a lyric writer. I’m even comfortable calling myself a singer—I’ve been singing my whole life. But no, I don’t write lyrics.” Jumping over that hurdle was so empowering. I love the record, and I think the lyrics are not only passable but strong. That’s completely changed the way I approach my life as a composer. Most of my last six years in New York has been devoted to the band that I sing in, and much less to the quartet and instrumental music. That said, I feel very natural and at ease writing music at the piano.
The way this all found its way into “Standard Candle” was almost like a release of having it need to be a certain type of lyricism. The words come in, in some cases, four minutes into a six-minute piece, and even then it might just be a second when we’re all singing. It’s not a verse-verse-chorus-bridge-outro type formula. Singing is used in a more orchestrated way, and that’s something I was excited to incorporate. I can start from a place that feels like home, sitting at the piano and writing moods, and almost decide in real time if it felt like something where singing was appropriate. It was freeing to have vocals at my disposal, but not need to use them every time. It’s something I’m really excited about.
TJG: You mentioned sitting down and writing moods. Could you explain that a little more?
CM: Yeah. Well you know, when I really disappear at the piano, in a good way, it’s when I’ve found some movement, whether melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, some movement that strikes me as potent. And I mean potent in mood, whether that may be euphoric, or sad, even potently lonely. These are the things that, when I listen to music, stop me in my tracks. There’s some Debussy piano music, things like “L’Isle Joyeuse,” that’s just pure, ecstatic euphoria. There are Elliot Smith songs that are just despair. These distilled moods or emotions are what moves me in art in general. Blurriness or uncertainty are things I hope to avoid. So when I sit down to write, I can feel myself disappear when I tap into one of those emotions that moves me. From there, it’s much easier to chase after the balloon, you know what I mean?
TJG: Yes, so does that come back to what you were saying earlier, with regard to musical themes and the things you’ve been reading and experiencing outside of composition?
CM: Yeah, I think so! Dave King has described some of the moods in my music as ‘hopefully lonely.’ That’s something that strikes me, I like that. That’s kind of what “Standard Candle” is. Space is an utterly alone thing. But a standard candle is a light on the farthest point you can see. It doesn’t behave like any other light you’ve ever seen. It must behave differently because there’s something we’re missing, and we choose to fill in that blank with optimism.
TJG: You’re an adjunct faculty member at The New School, right?
CM: Yes, I did a semester of teaching at The New School. It was wonderful. I love teaching, I love clinics, I’ve loved all the opportunities I’ve had over the past year with Mark Guiliana to do rhythm master classes all over the world. The New School thing was more of a private, one-on-one position. I really connect to people in that environment, and that’s a facet of me that I want to expand.
TJG: So how does your approach to music inform your teaching?
CM: I don’t come in with a prescription that I ask of the student. In the one-on-one way, my strength is as an inspirer, to help the student see that they have their own musical tools. The way that I discovered my musicianship was through my teachers. Dave King, Anthony Cox, and so on. These guys were basically like, “You’ve got it man, you’re a beautiful musician.” Having confidence instilled in you by a musician you revere was always more valuable to me than being told to transcribe or work on something I didn’t connect to.
Hopefully, the ways that I write and play relate to that. I think I could grow into having some prescriptions that work for people. But my strength is in framing music in terms of its possibility, mysticism, and universality, and having it light people up in the way that it lit me up.
TJG: Aside from teaching, you’ve been working with a lot of other incredible artists lately, from Mark Guiliana and Andrew Bird to Gretchen Parlato and Sara Bareilles and far beyond. Which of these artists and collaborators have a musical approach that resonates with you?
CM: That’s the beautiful thing about following what feels right. All of the people you mentioned are people that came into my life through social circles. None of these were career in-roads. These were all relationships that started with musical magnetism. All of them have this shared theme—one could argue that all musicians are very similar. These are vastly different settings. You’ve got a massive pop act, a drum world hero, a jazz vocalist, but we share a similar approach and love for music.
TJG: You’ve had an album release every two years or so, from The Morning World (2009, Sunnyside) to North Hero (2013, Sunnyside). What’s next in the progression?
CM: In terms of my music, as soon as “Standard Candle” is premiered, we’re going into the studio to record. Josh and Grey and I have been performing as the next incarnation of Taurus, the rock band that I’ve been playing with. That will occupy my time over the next few months. I’ll start to scheme ways in which I could record and release “Standard Candle,” that’s definitely on the horizon. Collaboration-wise, I have a lot of stuff coming up with Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet which, I might add, got a very lovely nod in the Sunday Times this week, which I’m psyched about. I’m also playing more with the Jim Campilongo Trio and taking a couple trips with him. Recently, I’ve joined forces with Trixie Whitley. She’s some of the most potent musicianship in a human body that you’ll come across. She’s a wonderful singer and we’ll be playing some shows together at the end of this year and in 2016.
TJG: It’s been great talking with you, Chris. Just one last question: I don’t wanna put you on the spot, but your website says you’re a connoisseur and collector of jokes. Would you mind sharing one of your favorites?
CM: [Laughs] Man, I don’t think I’m the kind of student of comedy who has a joke in the chamber, ready to rock. I’m more of an improviser in that way but man, I can’t do it! Bless you for asking. I love funny things, relating to the world in that way is a joy, and I wish I could prove it to you.
TJG: Well, it sounds like you’re up to enough great stuff as it is. Chris, it’s been great talking with you, and we’re all looking forward to the show.
CM: Thanks so much!
The Jazz Gallery’s 2014-2015 Residency Commission Series begins with Chris Morrissey’s Standard Candle on Friday, June 12th and Saturday, June 13th, 2015. The group features songs by Mr. Morrissey performed by the leader on electric bass and voice, Grey McMurray on guitar and voice, Mike Lewis on saxophone and voice, and Josh Dion on drums, synth, and voice. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. The series is funded in part by a generous grant from the Jerome Foundation. Purchase tickets here.