Jul 12 2014
There was nothing wrong with Chris Morrissey‘s 2009 debut, The Morning World. There was plenty to like about his nice mix of catchy tunes and rambling thought-provokers, but it left the impression that Morrissey was certain what he wanted to talk about, but unsure how to get the conversation started. The experience, and time, clearly has seen a shift in that matter. Morrissey’s 2013 release North Hero has a concision that his debut lacked, a presentation of a thesis statement for each song, so that no matter how tangential the music became in the course of the performance, there was never any doubt about where the subject began and where it would eventually end up.
The sole reason for this change is the melody.
North Hero gives the sense that the starting point for each song’s creation began with crafting the melody, and that only when it was perfect would it be okay to begin charting the outward bound routes. And with any truly great melody, it possesses an irresistible gravitational pull to return to it throughout the song’s duration. Thankfully, on North Hero, Chris Morrissey’s quartet obeys that particular law of physics, because it’s a series of one memorable melody after the other.
A great melody has a certain mutability. Within each great pop music melody lays dormant the potential for a great jazz melody. There are far more current examples of this, but the general acceptance and knowledge of John Coltrane’s classic take on “My Favorite Things” resonates even to this day. That mutability of a great melody holds for more than one direction. The use of Jazz melodies in modern hip hop, jazz musicians covering indie-rock artists and electronica acts incorporating jazz into their sets… the melody is the passport between genres.
Add to this the trend of a new generation of jazz musicians, raised on all kinds of music that often bleed into their own visualization of jazz music, and the genre cross-pollination evinces an even stronger effect on the Jazz of Today. And like many of Jazz’s newer generations, Chris Morrissey is just as likely to gig with non-jazz groups. So it shouldn’t be surprising that North Hero has elements of indie-rock as strong as those of Jazz. Jazz projects aside, Morrissey has also gigged with a diverse set of non-jazz acts like Dosh, Andrew Bird, Ben Kweller and Sara Bareilles.
Crossing music borders is going to reveal the parallels and commonalities between music influences and expressions. This clarity allows the musician to better honor the rules of any one particular genre while simultaneously arming them with methods to remain unbound by them. That is North Hero is a nutshell.
The urgent tempo and bubbly cheerfulness of a track like “The Spirit Of Chanhassen” and the melancholic lullaby sighs of “Minor Silverstein” recall the hard bop one-two combo of McCoy Tyner’s opening salvo on The Real McCoy (“Passion Dance” and “Contemplation“). The former, however, breaks into interludes of curling melodic fragments and snappy drum bursts more reminiscent of alt-country act Richmond Fontaine. The latter, on the other hand, has a weary sadness more beholden to indie star Bonnie Prince Billy than the hard bop legend.
Clifford Jordan’s name should be in play here, too. Both “Roman Subway” and “Electric Blanket” share Jordan’s predilection for melodies and tones with a strong cinematic presence that would often build up into dramatic, focused outbursts of intensity, but both hint at pop music and rock influences where Jordan was developing his own style of spiritual jazz. The comparisons are to be found in the melodic seeds, not the way in which the songs eventually bloomed.
Some songs weight the jazz-non-jazz ratio to one extreme or the other. “Midland, Texas Picnic Area” brings the heat and raw exuberance of modern post-bop, whereas “Hands Crystals Anderson” sets off with a rock tempo and pop music melody and never really looks back. On the other hand, “One Worn Mile” drawls out a thick blues, keeping things to a nice, cool stroll, and adds some diversity to the affair without detracting from the album’s identity. Same to be said for “Lullaby For Twins,” which accentuates the album’s contemplative nature… a quality that reveals itself in glimpses and insinuations when it’s not front and center.
The personnel in Morrissey’s quartet are well suited for crossing genre borders. Drummer Mark Guiliana’s career epitomizes it, in fact, whether it’s his electronica jam out with pianist Brad Mehldau (“Mehliana”), the inventive “world” jazz sessions from Brad Shepik and Lionel Loueke, or the modern jazz-funk collaboration with pianist Jason Lindner (“Now vs. Now”)… Guiliana is a chameleon-for-hire. Pianist Aaron Parks has been a go-to guy for an all-pro line-up of modern jazz stars, with names like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Terence Blanchard, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Lage Lund calling for his services, and then there’s his forward-thinking modern recording Invisible Cinema, the modern masterpiece of James Farm, and his recent solo release, the introspective Arborescence. In addition to collaborating with Dosh, Andrew Bird and Bon Iver, saxophonist Michael Lewis is a member of progressive jazz trio Happy Apple, who counts Dave King of the Bad Plus among its members. It also seems relevant to mention that Morrissey, Guiliana, and Parks all have worked with jazz vocalist Gretchen Parlato… who, as a vocalist, is keenly aware of the latent power of a well-crafted melody.
It’s those melodies that make North Hero something special.
Your album personnel: Chris Morrissey (bass), Aaron Parks (piano), Mike Lewis (saxophone), and Mark Guiliana (drums).
Released on Sunnyside Records.
Jazz from Minneapolis, MN, via the NYC scene.