Willie Morris, Conversation Starter Review
The Future Speaks Through the Past: A Review of Willie Morris’s Conversation Starter
by Jeff Becker
In the intricate and audacious depths of today’s modern jazz universe, where traditionalism meets genre-bending blending, rises Willie Morris—a saxophonist and composer sounding of today’s jazz depths complexities and rhythms. His debut album, Conversation Starter, released on August 18, 2023 via Posi-Tone Records, is a collection of two arrangements and eight originals that form a compelling narrative, echoing the profound influences of jazz legends while firmly planting its own flag in the modern landscape. Listen, and you will hear the ensemble converse, challenge, and ultimately enrich the jazz-loving soul.
Educated at Eastern Illinois University and the esteemed Juilliard, Morris has earned his accolades performing alongside jazz titans like Randy Brecker, John Clayton, and Jason Marsalis. His St. Louis roots also tap into the rich legacy of the city’s art forms and jazz idioms. Conversation Starter takes a bow to hard bop but reinvigorates the genre with the dynamism of modern modal jazz.
How does one distinguish himself in the already overcrowded symposium of jazz? Morris’s answer lies in his nimble balancing act between technical mastery and melodic nuance. His gift for improvisation is solid, akin to a painter skillfully blending modal shades from the ’60s with the vivid palette of today’s jazz.
The ensemble is a carefully curated blend of talents, featuring Morris and Patrick Cornelius on saxophones, Jon Davis at the piano keys, Adi Meyerson on bass supplying the harmonic foundation, and EJ Strickland on drums, whose interactive rhythmic patterns keep the ensemble in a state of dynamic flow. The presence of dual saxophones energizes the album, allowing for nuanced dialogues and deep explorations within the compositions. Together, these musicians merge their individual strengths into a cohesive sound that elevates the album’s complex musical narratives.
“Tina’s Dream,” the opening track, is a deeply emotional journey that blends post-bop and modal jazz into an evocative narrative. The track immediately captures attention with its intimate post-bop melody, transitioning gracefully into a rich modal jazz solo section. Set to a waltz swing-eight tempo, the piece delves into emotional territories that pivot between anguish and hope.
Morris, armed with his saxophone, leads the ensemble, and opens the solo sections with a performance that captures both attention and imagination. Backed by Meyerson’s bass, which provides a constant modal harmonic anchor, Morris unleashes a series of dynamic flurries and complex harmonic shades. These elements enrich the piece’s texture without overwhelming the listener, a balance that many strive for but few achieve.
Cornelius, the alto saxophonist, offers a contrasting emotional narrative with his solo. His approach, more melodic in nature, builds to a clear emotional climax. This acts as a counterpoint to Morris’s more aggressive sonic exploration and adds another layer of depth to the composition.
Strickland, the drummer, serves as an essential element, providing a constant rhythmic undercurrent that not only keeps time but also serves as a source of interaction and inspiration for the ensemble.
Davis, at the piano, takes the listener further down the rabbit hole of emotional complexity. His modal exploration remains consistent with the preceding solos but elevates the piece by introducing Latin rhythmic patterns. This not only spices up the sonic landscape but also bridges the anguishing and hopeful themes into an emotionally coherent whole.
As an opening track, “Tina’s Dream” sets a high bar for the album. It achieves a harmonious interplay between post-bop and modal jazz idioms, crafting a compelling musical narrative that engages the listener both intellectually and emotionally. Each musician gets a moment in the spotlight, contributing their unique talents to build a unified and emotionally impactful sound.
Morris has succeeded in weaving a complex unified message with “Tina’s Dream.” The piece’s dynamic energy carries the listener through varying emotional states, much akin to the different phases of a dream. It’s a fitting opener for an album that promises a deeper exploration of both musical and emotional complexities, leaving listeners not just satisfied but eagerly awaiting what comes next.
“The Strength Of Those Who Bear The Burden,” another Morris original, stands as a high point on the album, a testimony to the collective musical brilliance of the ensemble. This performance is a narrative expressed in the language of modern jazz and modal idioms. The piece opens with an intriguing melody that immediately captivates the listener. It lays the groundwork for a musical experience that invites both intellectual engagement and emotional immersion.
Morris digs deep in his solo, delivering one of his most arching and emotional performances on the album. His ideas are crystalline, and the motifs are wonderfully developed, creating a narrative arc that takes the listener on a journey.
Cornelius follows Morris’s deep solo with another layer of complexity: a richly harmonic solo built on superimposed chordal patterns over the song’s simple harmonic modal structure. This adds a new dimension, introducing harmonic tension while maintaining emotional clarity.
Meyerson’s bass provides both the modal color and an interactive playground for the soloists. His bass lines are not just foundational but also dynamically respond to the other musicians’ improvisations.
Strickland’s drumming adds another level of energy. His performance is rich in cross-rhythms and dynamics, creating an environment that’s both powerful and interactive. His drumming isn’t just a backdrop; it’s a voice that contributes to the narrative and emotional depth of the piece.
One of the standout elements of this piece is the cohesive ensemble interaction. Every musician in the quintet listens and responds to each other with keen intent and an open heart. This results in strikingly poignant improvisations that create a synergistic effect, essential for the development of both the piece and its emotional impact.
“The Strength Of Those Who Bear The Burden” marks a high point on the album, showcasing the ensemble’s collective ability to blend technical proficiency, emotional depth, and interactive ensemble playing. Morris constructed a rich musical environment that succeeds in both engaging and resonating with the listener. It stands as a fine example of what modern jazz can achieve—complexity without confusion, emotional depth without melodrama, and individual virtuosity without overshadowing collective genius.
The album’s overall mood is a harmonious blend of impassioned improvisation, intellectual stimulation, and resilience. In Conversation Starter, Morris’s tenor saxophone takes center stage, expertly complemented by a quintet of seasoned musicians—Cornelius on alto saxophone, Davis on piano, Meyerson on bass, and Strickland on drums. Each member brings their unique flair to the project, coalescing into an intricate labyrinth of sound that transcends traditional genre boundaries. Behind the scenes, Producer Marc Free ensures the sonic integrity of the album, skillfully mixing and mastering at Woodland Studio for crystalline audio fidelity.
Conversation Starter does precisely what its title promises—it begins a dialogue among jazz enthusiasts and listeners willing to immerse themselves in the intricate web of emotion, technique, and ensemble cohesion that the album offers. It’s more than just an auspicious starting point for Willie Morris; it’s a touchstone for the modern jazz landscape, offering a rich, nuanced perspective that challenges and expands our understanding of what jazz can be today. As the conversation starts, rest assured, it’s one that aficionados and newcomers alike will be eager to join for years to come.