Friday, January 11, 2008

RIP Dan Morris

For some time before I snapped up an (unwitting) Mr. Schnelle as our "official drummer" -- and let's face it, the honor has been all mine -- we had something of a "drummer problem," in that we couldn't get any of our tubs-men to actually stay in the band. From 2000 to 2005 we went through, by my count, six "main" drummers, and maybe a few more who subbed with us from time to time. That's changing drummers more than once a year -- no way to build a solid rhythm section, especially when you're dealing with complex, written, original music. It was maddening.

Not that it was anybody's fault. Sometimes economic reality intervenes. Sometimes schedules just don't mesh. And sometimes, even in the case of players who can handle all of the aesthetic / economic / logistical challenges you want to throw at them, the chemistry of a given lineup might be slightly askew. (As a bandleader, sometimes you've just got to suck it up and recognize that the greatest musician in the world might not be the best fit for your project, if he or she isn't "vibing" with everyone else.)

Still, I like to think that I have learned something important from everyone who has played in this group, no matter how briefly. And I know that's the case with Dan Morris, who took a turn in the IJG drum chair for maybe four or five months in 2003. Dan and I lost touch shortly after his tenure as our drummer -- until recently, when he came back to my attention in the worst possible way. There are so many dimensions to this tragedy, but the one I keep coming back to is the untimeliness of it all -- at 37, he was, simply and horribly, way too young.

Dan's good friend Alex Shapiro has a moving tribute (as well as some context) here (thanks to KT for the link).

* * * * *

I met Dan at a James Carney trio concert (at the aforementioned club Rocco) sometime in 2002 (Dan Lutz was on bass, I believe). For me, it was a moment of great growth -- the IJG (such as it was) was fully into its septet phase, and was in the process of becoming a distinct presence on the LA "avant jazz" scene (such as it was). I was at the Carney concert both to hear the trio live for the first time (I had been a fan of their recorded work for a while) and to check out the club, which I had never been to. It was a mellow evening, audience-wise, and at the break Carney and Morris both came over to my table and we had a long chat about music and LA. They confessed their admiration for our City of Angles album (which had just come out), and we talked about that for a little while. I was a little naive, and a little overwhelmed, frankly -- as an interloper on the scene, I couldn't believe I was getting totally unsolicited and genuine respect from the very guys I was trying to show unsolicited and genuine respect for. It was a nice connection.

I noted right away that Dan had a big, fun, outgoing manner; as a result, the conversation seemed to fly right by. At the end of the night, I filed that interaction somewhere in the back of my mind -- with a note that said "If you ever need a drummer, be sure to give this guy a call."

* * * * *

Dan was on board for our very first San Francisco performance (which, coincidentally, took place on the day after the Iraq war started, and was thus a fairly emotional event for me -- I can still vividly remember the street protests that almost prevented me from actually making it to the venue). If you squint, you can see him in the above pic, between Garrett Smith (bone) and Cory Wright (soprano).

But Dan's first performance with us was a Rocco show (by this time the club had moved into the theater next to the performance space depicted in the "AMC" video), on February 22, 2003. It was only our second performance as a nonet; in addition to Dan and myself, the personnel was Aaron Kohen (bass), Cory Wright (tenor), Beth Schenck (soprano), Evan Francis (alto), Kris Tiner (trumpet), Justin Ray (trumpet), and Garrett Smith (bone). Dan helped us debut a number of tunes which would eventually be released on The Star Chamber.

To my ear, he lent a unique beefiness to the overall sound of the group. Check out his take on the opening section of this (shitty live recording of) "Anger Management Classes" (I know I've been going on about this one lately -- sorry):

Whatever my insecurities about this tune, I have long drooled at the prospect of doing an orchestra + drumkit arrangement of it -- and what Dan plays here pretty much nails what I would be looking for from a drummer in that scenario: a driving beat punctuated by "sporadic raining hellfire" fills. Or something like that.

Although he was comfortable slopping around in the bog of progginess exemplified by "AMC," I personally think that where Dan really shone was in the freer, more improvisatory stuff. In this excerpt from a performance of "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboy-Presidents" (recorded at the same Rocco show), notice how he expertly displaces the big "drum downbeat" that you so desperately want to hear at the end of the first four-note horn sequence (to put it another way: there's a roll that begins at around :21 and feels like it could end in a crash at :26, but hangs on for another two seconds). That, plus the sudden shifts in feel/texture that follow, give this section an apposite frenetic tone (which ended up evolving in a different direction by the time we got around to recording the tune "for real"):

Of course, Dan could lay down a plain old comical backbeat groove (the sort of thing that we would start doing more of in 2004, after he left the group). This is from a later section of the same recording of "Mamas":

And so on.

* * * * *

I certainly don't want to suggest that Dan's participation in the IJG was the high point of his career, however much I personally appreciated it. To really hear him at his best, I recommend checking out any of the recordings he made with James Carney. There are three of them, and they are all stellar -- here's a sample from one of my very favorite of Jim's tunes (that's Peter Epstein on soprano -- good golly!). There is also the work he did with Alex Shapiro, which I am less familiar with, but which sounds great to me in the excerpt that can be found at her own post. And yes, there's more stuff listed at this bio.

The bigger issue, however, is that whatever recorded legacy he left behind, Dan was a significant force on the LA new music scene in the early years of this century -- and perhaps in ways that are frustratingly harder to measure than through the evidence of a simple discography. He was one of those dedicated, unsung people who was always out hearing music as well as making it. He was curious, he was an advocate, and he helped to keep the scene alive. He was there in a way that mattered -- a quintessential soldier in one of the best "good fights" a person could embrace: the fight for culture.

For that, and for everything else, this ex-Angeleno would humbly and solemnly like to say: thank you, Dan. You will be greatly missed.


Maria's Music said...

The number of unsung heroes in jazz is frightening. It's unfortunate that Britney Spears can do the dumb things she does and people love to read about it, but the amazing musical feats of jazz musicians are ignored by most.

There was an advertisement for a jazz festival in DownBeat a few years ago, that had very modestly printed at the bottom of the page "Less Britney and Justin. More Ella and Thelonious". I wish that was a stronger voice in America.

KRIS TINER said...

Beautiful, Andrew. Thanks for writing this badly needed tribute. Good to hear those audio clips. I remember us kind of scrambling to get things together for that Rocco gig, plus adjusting to a new rhythm section, and that's when the IJG drum parts started getting really difficult. I kind of felt bad for the guy when he first came in, but turned out he really nailed it. AND made it his own. AND kept everybody in stitches meanwhile...

Andrew said...

Thanks, Maria and Kris, for reading and commenting.

For anyone passing through: please check out Kris's own post on Dan, which sums things up exactly and eloquently, and points toward a few other relevant links.