AT LAST YEAR'S intense and intimate concert at Crush nightclub, Joe Morris paused to remark that some people find his avant-garde jazz guitar music hard to understand. A woman in the audience blurted, "But it's so beautiful!"
Listening to the Joe Morris Quartet is astonishing -- because his departure from syntactic thinking is challenging and yet so,well, pretty. The music seems alien because it so clearly belongs in the natural world from which Western man has taken great pains to separate himself. Yet Morris communicates. If anything, he shows how we retain intuitive links to the natural world.
Morris discovered his musical inclinations after a period of truancy in his early teens. He recalls an epiphany after his release from the Connecticut School for Troubled Children -- staring out his bedroom window at "A Cloud of Black Birds" which inspired his 1998 album of that name. Much later, after teaching himself guitar at the Unschool of New Haven and a mentoring experience with jazz pianist and theorist Lowell Davidson, Morris realized that the experience had prepared him to see jazz as a vehicle for self-discovery.
"I try to find the basic pattern, and then I try to create variable shapes off of that, and variable shapes off of that," Morris explains. "It's like a nodal tree. I try to understand what the common points are, where the joints are. I try to explore all the different limbs off of that and all their subsidiaries. I use the structures of nature as my guide all the time. It gives me the freedom to go in any direction."
From his first recordings for his own Riti label, Morris received rave reviews from the jazz press. Since then, he's recorded a score of albums with the hottest names in avant-garde jazz, including William Parker, Matthew Shipp and Ivo Perelman, and as leader of his own groups.
Cerebral as his music may be, Morris stresses the importance of exploring its intricacies not just with the brain but with the gut. "There are times when you're playing when you feel like you're doing something that's never been done before," he says. "And when you're playing with people who know they're doing that, too -- it's total bliss. And there's other times when you feel like you're riding on the front of a locomotive -- everybody's pushing you as intensely as they can, and you're in this immediate environment; you have to deal with it right there."
JOE MORRIS -- Appearing Monday at Mr. Henry's in Adams-Morgan. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Joe Morris, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8110. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)