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Acclaimed jazz guitarist and composer joins UCalgary as Killam Visiting Scholar

Joe Morris brings world leadership in the teaching and study of improvised music to the Faculty of Arts 

American jazz guitarist and composer Joe Morris – once declared the preeminent free music, or, improvisational guitarist of his generation by the venerated Down Beat magazine – is set to begin his winter residency at the University of Calgary as a Killam Visiting Scholar.

Morris – who currently teaches in the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation Department at the New England Conservatory of Music – is regarded internationally as a pioneer in the teaching and critical study of improvised music, or, as he defines it, free music. His 2012 book Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music is considered a seminal text in this field of study.

As a Killam Visiting Scholar at the university’s School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), Morris will be teaching courses and giving seminars on free music theory and working closely with students and faculty in the school’s music department.

Morris defines free music as “music made by people who use improvisation as the primary vehicle to make their music, without regard to the oversights of any institution, critical establishment or industry.”

“They’re not trying to live up to any particular tradition,” says Morris. “They’re more interested in innovation and in creating something on terms they define.”

Morris began playing the guitar in 1969, at the age of 14, first inspired by rock legend Jimi Hendrix. “He was a transformative figure for so many people my age,” Morris says. “He set the goal of trying to find one’s own voice on the guitar.”

Before long, however, Morris discovered his true calling in jazz and new music, finding even more depth than Hendrix in the works of such artists as John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Thelonius Monk and Ornette Coleman. He would later also be influenced by West African string music.

“That music spoke to me on a deep artistic level and it challenged me technically,” he says. “I had to do a lot of self study to figure out how to play it, understand it, and translate it to the guitar.”

“It set me off on the adventure I’ve been on for the last 40 years and it’s been an amazing adventure. Coming to Calgary is the next chapter.”

In the 1990s Morris emerged as an important figure in New York’s innovative “downtown scene,” performing and recording with such prominent names as Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, William Parker, John Zorn, and Evan Parker.

“In my mind that group are at the leading edge of improvised music,” says Rob Oxoby, an economics professor and accomplished musician who, during his term as associate dean, research, for the Faculty of Arts, was instrumental in inviting Morris to the University of Calgary. “Morris is one of the few performers who has developed a pedagogy for understanding free improvisation and I knew he would have much to bring to the SCPA.”

As a leading voice in the study of free music, Morris will enhance teaching and research that’s already being done at SCPA in the field of improvisation, through the work of such University of Calgary music professors as Jeremy Brown, David Eagle and Laurie Radford.

“I’m excited to see how my perspective on improvisation engages with people who do similar work in Calgary,” says Morris.

“Some who study improvisation consider it be this mysterious unknown that musicians can tap into. I sort of part company with that school of thought.”

For decades Morris has studied the work of musicians who have created improvised music and documented the process in some way. “I’ve spent my life researching what they did and when I put it together for my book it was clear that there are common shared properties in all free music.”

“The way people interact. The way they use notes and melody. They way they express the rhythm. The way they generate form. The way they build a community in which to play. These things are consistent in every period of what I call free music. If we understand how these factors have been used, than students and listeners can understand how to employ these properties and learn how to synthesize them for interpretation.”

Morris adds: “In a way, I’m breaking down music and the way people improvise into basic engineering principles. I’m less interested in the philosophy of improvisation and more interested in the engineering of music through improvisation.”

Morris will be performing with the UCalgary Jazz Orchestra on March 1 at the University Theatre. 

For more information on the prestigious Killam Visiting Scholar award see www.ucalgary.ca/killam/faculty/visitingscholar