This Wednesday, February 21, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome bassist Chris Morrissey and his band Standard Candle back to our stage. The group has grown out of a 2015 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission, continuously building a unique repertoire of what Morrissey calls “singing, kind of asymmetrical, through-composed stuff with improvising.” We caught up with Chris to talk about the group’s development, his musical lineages, and his love of American musical theater.
The Jazz Gallery: What are you working on these days?
Chris Morrissey: I have a record coming out March 9th. It’s been done for a long time, so I’m happy to finally be able to share it. We’ve also been working on editing a music video for the first single that comes out next week, so that’s been occupying some of my creative brain. I have been writing a lot—this has been a strikingly slow few months, so I’ve been trying to navigate space that has no borders—no demands on my time. I’m normally pretty good at creating my own schedule—like incorporating time to practice, time to do yoga and run and everything, but this has been a longer than normal period for that. I’m happy with the writing and the music video I’ve been working on, but there’s also been a lot of looking out of windows, wondering what to do.
TJG: If another period like this comes up, would you approach it differently?
CM: Well these periods have come before. The last time something of this length happened was probably 9 years ago when I wrote most of what was my 2nd record, which is a rock record. I look back very fondly on that time even as stressed out as I was, and I try to apply that perspective to this time, even though this time is very different in a lot of ways because I have touring periods peppered throughout the next 18 months. Back then the feeling was more, “What am I going to do in New York?” And now I have a pretty firm grasp on what I do in New York, so it doesn’t have the same sense of freefall. These days, if things are just not moving, I try to let that be, knowing that it’s bound to change. January and February are notoriously like that—I’ve always felt immune to that, or have had some sense of entitlement to work but I’m learning that that’s not always the case.
TJG: Your approach sounds very Taoist. I know from other interviews you’re very into Buddhism and yoga.
CM: I love many Buddhist authors and speakers like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron and a lot of others. What I was sort of paraphrasing, which I think got you to think that it was Taoist, was a Murakami quote from Wind Up Bird Chronicle. In the book, the main character has a spiritual advisor, and he references this one session where the advisor said something like “You are either moving upwards or you are moving downwards, or you are staying perfectly still. Your job is to assess which of those things is happening and then not resist. If you’re going down, go all the way down. And if you’re going up, go all the way up. And if you’re still, stay as still as you can be.”
TJG: Let inertia take you.
CM: Yeah, I think so. Knowing the influence that you have over your ability to enjoy your moment or be driven mad by your moment—even if it’s an unpleasant thing, knowing that it will shift at some point. That your state of being is the sum of controllable factors interacting with uncontrollable factors.
TJG: It seems like a lot of musicians are practitioners of or are at least “into” Eastern Religion. Where do you think that connection lies? Does your interest in Eastern tradition play into your music directly or is that more a mindset that occurs independently?
CM: There are parallels. I have a progressive family—from a line of progressive artist-type people, but we were in a suburban, Midwestern, not very diverse community, where religion was just Catholic or Lutheran. Our church was Catholic and very progressive. Our priest, who is no longer with us, went on to fight for women to be able to be in the priesthood, and fought for some things that you don’t normally associate with Catholicism and priests. But it was still Catholic, and never really resonated with me the way some of Buddhism has.
So as I got older I had the desire for some sort of spiritual community that felt like music did. Celebratory, current, honest…I’m fishing around a little bit, because I don’t know exactly where that spiritual desire came from. I just know that if you’re pursuing music, you have this sense that you aren’t creating by yourself, that there is some sort of mystical community in this pursuit. I think some religion, Buddhism specifically, in its celebration of inter-being parallels musical creativity’s dependence on the community and the social.
TJG: Do you think music inherently seeks to touch that divine or transcend? Coltrane seems like a prime example.
CM: He’s certainly the spiritual liaison to the genre—at least the most well-known. I think for me music is where I experience the most joy and freedom from the things that present problems in other areas, and again I think that’s something people look to religion for also, whether devoting your life to a contemplative, prayerful, peaceful existence, or a severe devotion to your expression of humanity through music. The effects are similar and maybe that’s why there’s a kinship between them. To me, spirituality is the pursuit of the discovery that we’re all made of the same stuff—these divine energies having human experiences where this battle is taking place between the natural law of interconnectedness and the ego’s lie of your existence as separate from anything. I think violence comes from a belief in a separate self and peace comes from the acceptance that your happiness is my happiness. Improvising and playing jazz music is a space where you can experience some of those spiritual truths.
TJG: Do you think there’s a strong connection between the bass particularly and spirituality? The bass is such an earthy instrument. It seems like players really go get it.
CM: It’s funny, I’ve always said my personality type isn’t necessarily suited to what you think of when you think of the role of the instrument. I’m more loquacious than the stereotypical bassist. I like fronting bands, I like leading bands, but what did you mean about “going and getting it”?
TJG: It’s just such a visceral instrument—the tone. You’ve got your creamy-toned bassists like Christian McBride—his phrasing and tone are like butter, and then you have someone like Harish Raghavan whose tone is just so calming but aggressive at the same time.
CM: Yeah, Harish has some blinding technical prowess.
TJG: He really seems to grab and drive the music.
CM: It’s interesting. It’s definitely the instrument that gets noticed the least and here we are naming bassists and so that’s already a step into the spotlight from where bass normally exists in pop music.
In the context of jazz, I grew up loving Jaco—you know, flashy, virtuosic bassists, but I think for the music I write now and how I play Mark [Guiliana’s] music or Jim’s music for instance, I’m striving to be as supportive as I can be while still looking for moments to scream to the heavens. The bass is my ticket to keep trying to do that. To soar. To have my heart revealed to me. I feel like I understand a little more every year.
TJG: What are you seeking to understand?
CM: How music works and how to play music in a way that is sustainable for your sense of joy and your sense of increasing possibilities.
TJG: You mentioned you feel differently with upright vs. electric. Do you feel like a different musician on each of them? How do you decide which to bring to a gig?
CM: I feel the more and more I play both of them, the more I feel like the same musician on both instruments. The upright is a harder instrument to navigate physically, and that’s true for everybody that plays both. But I think I’ve gotten to somewhere where the two exist in a similar place in my mind. I definitely think there are differences to them. But some of the decisions regarding which bass I’ll bring to the gig are, “Is the band I’m going to play with really loud?” And if it is, I’ll bring the electric. But these days I play so few sideman gigs, that’s it’s been years since I’ve had to make that conscious decision. I play in the Mark Guiliana Band, I play in the Jim Campilongo Trio, and I play in my band and in Standard Candle, and there have been songwriters in pop and rock that I’ve done 2 year stints with over the last 8 years. And those tend to be electric, so I just don’t have to make that decision very often. But if I did, the questions would be, “Is it a loud band or is it not a loud band?”
TJG: I expected it to be more rooted in feeling but it sounds like it’s rooted in logic.
CM: Yeah, it’s like “how many transfers between my apartment and the gig am I going to have to make on the train?” If it’s a 3-transfer gig, I’m probably going to bring my electric. HA!
TJG: Is that what happened at The Jazz Gallery for Standard Candle?
CM: No, Standard Candle was always going to be electric. When I was writing that music I was really just feeling electric; I had been playing improvised music on electric through the Jim band and the Rich Hinman band. I knew there was going to be a lot of singing in Standard Candle, and I felt that number one, I wanted to be able to take it to rock band volume levels, and also singing in that environment, upright would have been inappropriate for the peak or the ceiling of where I wanted to go. I wanted to be able to play big, loud rock rooms with this band, and the electric felt more appropriate.
TJG: Do you have new music for Standard Candle?
CM: Yeah, we’ve been doing a couple of new things lately. It’s similar sort of through-composed stuff where a section happens three minutes in where there’s singing, kind of asymmetrical, through-composed stuff with improvising.
TJG: I find the music is cinematic.
CM: Yeah, I had a lot of musical theatre in my life growing up. I know that’s a genre that causes a lot of people concern if you cite that as an influence because it’s got some stereotypes like cheesy associated with it, but I’m referring to some of the best music of the genre like the overture to Candide—
TJG: Sure, or West Side Story.
CM: Yeah, all of Bernstein and Sondheim’s music.
TJG: I had a really boring New Year’s. The New York Philharmonic was playing West Side Story on TV and people were just crying to that music.
CM: I’ve had recent experiences like that. Margaret Glaspy, a singer-songwriter I play with, is really into the theater too, and in her van we would put on Jesus Christ Superstar and some other ‘70s Andrew Lloyd Webber stuff and just weep. Like the word “Broadway”, people use jazz as a derogatory term these days too; jazz means lame in a lot of ill-informed jive-ass rock circles. They’ll say, “Let’s do it again but not so jazzy.” And they don’t know what they are saying. It drives me crazy.
TJG: What do they mean?
CM: They mean noodly, overplayed. Not simple. And I get what they mean but I bring that up because I think Broadway and musical theatre has similar prejudices toward it, like I think if a pop person hears the word jazz, it’s like, “Oh, that means bad.” Or if a jazz person hears musical theatre, they’ll say it’s cheesy. But like anything else, you examine the pinnacles of each and you realize they’re just people making incredibly beautiful and effective art. Basically, I just want to advise caution before damning an entire genre.
And I think I straddle those two worlds because my dad was a pit orchestra music director in a Broadway-style place in Minnesota and I grew up in musical theatre listening to all of that music. The cinematic quality that you hear in Standard Candle is because I was listening to theatrical, cinematic music growing up and hearing JC Superstar and West Side Story and Candide and Sondheim, and walking around my house that was the subconscious soundtrack.
TJG: Given all of these influences, do you try to play different styles of music with a different mindset? You had said that upright and electric are beginning to feel more and more the same.
CM: It used to be different. I used to try to fit into the environment and be as adaptable as possible—which I still think is an important trait, but I think in rock and pop, sometimes the level of replaceability or importance of you as a bassist to the music is different from jazz. I think now, in all of the musical environments that I occupy, I try to only do sideman stuff that really challenges me or lights me up. I did the Dave Binney gig a few times—one night with Dan Weiss and Nate Wood and one with Nate and Matt Mitchell, and then the Wayne Krantz gig. Those are the sideman moments where I can comment on whether my approach is different. Dave and Wayne are brilliant musicians and I think one thing that a lot of brilliant improvisers or jazz musicians have in common is they try to instill a sense of openness in those who are guests in their bands. They’ll encourage you to “do the thing that you do” in their music. As I get older and move out of pop and rock, it feels like my approach hasn’t really changed but I am in environments that celebrate and exploit that freedom, which is much more sustainable and a much more enjoyable musical experience. I feel integral to the bands that I’m in, and just as integral when I have played with Dave and Wayne. And not that I wasn’t integral to the other pop and rock bands, but it’s just a different kind of mindset—your sense of the importance of your role in some of these bands that I mentioned, with Mark and Jim and Dave King and Wayne and Binney—
TJG: It’s a nice list of musicians to be playing with.
CM: Man, trust me, it makes me really happy to make music with all of those people. I feel like jazz was my first love, and I look at the natural way I feel in those environments compared to the way I feel in other environments. I fucking love playing rock and pop music, but the sideman culture in rock and pop is a little bit thankless. I was lucky to work with some great, generous artists, like Sara Bareilles, who’s an incredibly generous human. But there’s just these inescapable qualities of the pop sideman world that I don’t care to ever have to deal with again. And in the jazz world I feel integral, heard, like a teammate.
TJG: And when you’re playing your own music in a rock sense, is what’s integral to the music the whole Chris Morrissey experience vs. Chris Morrissey on bass?
CM: That’s almost more fertile ground for difference in approach—my bands vs. bands that aren’t mine. I listen very differently in my own bands. I have a little bit of a microscope on everyone and I’m learning how to not be that way and just trust. A lot of that is personnel. You try to surround yourself with the people who surprise you and inspire—I was just saying that Jim and Mark and Wayne give you the keys to their luxury car for the evening, and say “I trust you.” I’m trying to learn to be more like that.
TJG: When you said a microscope, you mean from a judging point of view?
CM: Yeah, in Jim’s band I’m, on a good night, nowhere near my brain. I’m totally in my body in the best way, and it’s much harder to do that when it’s my gig. You put so many hours into crafting your thing. And the things that go differently than how you imagined it jump out to you and take you out of the body experience and put you into more of a brain experience. I’m learning how to not do that. A lot of that is personnel or being able to give clear direction, like saying, “This is how I want this section to be. This section you can explore but this section has to be very stated and very supported.”
TJG: This one’s a little off-topic, but why do you think intelligent people hate their brains?
CM: That’s an awesome question. It makes me think of Lenny Dykstra, the baseball player. In Moneyball, the Mike Lewis book—(the author not the saxophonist), he talks about how Billy Beane was a brain guy. He knew the probability of on the third pitch of an at-bat, if you were going to get a curveball or not based on what inning it was and when was the last time the pitcher started was, and if you should bat left or right. Billy struggled as a hitter, but he was a hitting stats genius, and his roommate was Lenny Dykstra. Now Lenny would be eating potato chips or something on the bench and then he’d go hit a double down the line without knowing a thing about the pitcher. Meanwhile, Billy’s thinking, “I wish I could turn this off.”
The more intelligent you are, the more you will probably try to access your brain as something that makes your world go around, trying to make it your fixer and your feeler. That’s not sustainable. If you get into the meditation world, they suggest keeping your thoughts and your emotions in your heart and your body. As your thoughts bubble up in your head, physically move them down to this infinite space. Your brain gives birth to these things but it can’t raise them. Some people with gifted intellects try to keep everything in their mind, but that just ends up making you hate your brain. You can’t do it. You have to move all that shit down or you’re going to be miserable.
TJG: When playing the bass, don’t you have to use your brain to some degree? It controls the mechanics of the body, right?
CM: It’s funny, but whenever I’m referring to a night that was transcendent, I use the phrase “I was nowhere near my head.” It’s glorious. It’s this thing where your body can react in real time, but your brain needs time to digest. If you’re thinking about responding or reacting, you’re not reacting. If you’re reacting, you’re not thinking. And that’s the goal. Another tactic in accessing that in playing is just focusing all of your energy on listening, and trusting your body knows what to do.
TJG: Well you’ve certainly trained your body to react musically.
CM: Yeah, and the training is very cerebral. But the training is to use the tool of organization that is your intellect and your brain and learn how to stock your toolshed up and then observe the body when you’ve gotten to a place where you feel the music is becoming more than you thought it could be—the mystical place where you’re free from the thoughts. How does my body feel when I get there, and what did I do to facilitate that? How can I maintain that without clenching up? It’s like when you realize that you don’t have training wheels on your bike and you fall but you were fine till you noticed you weren’t using them. Use that and study how your body feels in that moment and divert all resources into making that the way that you approach music.
TJG: Can we talk a little bit more about your musical upbringing and original inspirations? You had said in a previous interview that jazz was your first love. Forgive me for stereotyping, but that’s not what I’d expect to hear out of someone from Minnesota.
CM: The jazz lineage in Minnesota is deep and the music lineage in Minnesota is deep. I specifically, was drawing from my family. My dad, before he was in the theatre, was a big band trumpet player and my mom’s dad was a piano player. My mom is a great flute player and music educator. Both parents were professional musicians so there was a record collection that had Kind of Blue and Mingus Dynasty and all this other great stuff sitting around available to me growing up. And then I had some really good teachers starting from elementary school who were really jazz-centered.
The other thing that is a necessary component to that falling in love is having a scene and a community and a city near you that has inspiring art and music. The twin cities had Anthony Cox and Happy Apple and Fat Kid Wednesdays, and these are bands to me which don’t have equals. What they did was totally rare and totally unique and I still don’t think I’ve heard anything better than Happy Apple. I say that knowing that it would make some people from New York argue with me, but I was in the front row for 100 of those shows where they were drawing 500 people to see an avant-garde saxophone trio instrumental band with an electric bass and saxophone in a Midwestern state. For me that can’t be overstated. I got to fall in love with jazz as a kid around my house putting Miles Davis on, but when I got a driver’s license I could go hear a band whose improvising and writing were world class and I was absorbed into their scene. Invaluable. If there is anything that I stand proudly next to in my bands or in my writing, it’s because I grew up around a really good record collection and I had Happy Apple and Anthony Cox 20 minutes from me whenever I wanted it.
TJG: Was there something specific that drew you to the music or to the record collection?
CM: Well, it was your parents’ record collection, you know? It was just the one that I had access to. Sure, I had cassettes and CDs of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, which I fucking love, but when I put on Kind of Blue, it was like falling in love. It felt like just the right time—15 years old and you’ve put a couple of things together in your mind about what music can be and then you hear THAT with curious ears. “Wait it can be like THIS?!” I get chills even just talking about it, and I love that the jazz community can share that experience, and I love being able to tell that story and have people go “Yeah.”
TJG: You were a very aware 15 year-old.
CM: Well I grew up with professional musician parents. There was always that caliber of music being played on the record player. And I have some disadvantages from their specific tastes too —like I didn’t know who Bob Dylan was until I was 23, and I love Dylan. He’s my shit. But I feel really lucky; I was born into a house with two really good musician parents with really good taste and then had some really amazing bands to go and see. And what specifically was the draw of Happy Apple? It’s the same thing, it’s indescribable. It was just profound to absorb that as a teenager. The punk rock energy that they play with. This wasn’t some gig, man. This wasn’t going to the Tea Lounge and watching dudes read some charts. This was vital, communal, familial, strange, avant-garde but accessible, euphoric punk jazz. And it was hyper melodic and hyper folkloric; it had all of the intellect as well as having the earthy feel of where I grew up. It was perfect to me. And I grew up with those guys. I grew up with Mike, the saxophone player who was in the Standard Candle band, and Dave of course from the Bad Plus, and Erik who I now play with in Dave’s band the Trucking Company. Somebody in the same room may have had a totally different experience. But for me it was just perfect and I was like, “This is art. This is what humans can do.” And that’s enough to keep me getting out of bed until I can’t anymore. Knowing that Happy Apple is possible. That that level of communication and heat can get generated by people making sounds and giving that to other people that are listening to it—it was just an explosion of inspiration for a 16 year-old kid which I still live on today.
TJG: Thanks so much, Chris. We’re really looking forward to hearing your new tunes and the old Standard Candle favorites.
CM: Right on. Thank you.
TJG: Is there any change to your approach in composing?
CM: I’m really trying to write what I would like to hear. Like I said before, we have songs where the singing appears late in the song or sometimes only in the middle, so utilizing these tools in our toolbox in ways which I think are interesting, or maybe that strike me as exciting and new as a writer. Standard Candle offers me the template to do that. For the new stuff, one doesn’t have singing and one does have singing. And then there’s all the old ones—it’s funny that they’re old now. I wrote them in 2015.
TJG: You’ve got the jazz fanboys who already know all of them.
CM: Thank god for the jazz fanboys. I don’t know what I’d do without them. But really, always excited to play the Gallery. The Gallery is another one of those things—I can’t imagine the New York jazz scene without The Jazz Gallery.
Chris Morrissey’s Standard Candle plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, February 21, 2018. The group features Mr. Morrissey on bass & voice, Nick Videen on saxophone & voice, Grey McMurray on guitar & voice, and Josh Dion on drums & voice. 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.