Photo courtesy of the artist.
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.