Exploring Justin Morell’s Guitar Concerto

concerto for guitar and jazz orchestra-cover

WP 2019 - 2MORELL: Concerto for Guitar and Jazz Orchestra / Adam Rogers, gtr. Frost Concert Jazz Band: Russell Macklem, Michael Dudley, Aaron Mutchler, Greg Chaimson, tpt; Derek Pyle, Will Wulfeck, Eli Feingold, tb; Wesley Thompson, bs-tb; Tom Kelley, a-sax/s-sax; Brian Bibb, a-sax/fl; Chris Thompson-Taylor, Seth Crail, t-sax/cl; Clint Bleil, bar-sax/bs-cl; Jake Shapiro, pno; Josh Bermudez, gtr; Nackenzie Karbon, vib/glock; Lowell Ringel, bs; Garrett Fracol, dm; John Daversa, dir/cond / no label name or number, available at ArtistShare

This is the kind of album that I really like but the reception of which drives me batty. Even after more than 60 years of jazz concerti and symphonies, most classical lovers will NOT accept any formal music based on jazz and jazz lovers will NOT accept music with a formal structure. Both sides still consider music like this to be a sort of artistic platypus, neither fish nor fowl.

And yet, as I tried to make clear in my online book From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, the fusion of jazz with classical music is clearly the way out of the morass that most modern composers find themselves in. Far too much of today’s classical music falls into one of two categories: the soft, mushy, neo-Romantic sort of thing, which to me is music with no backbone or harmonic interest, or the “hey look at me, I’m edgy” kind of music with sharp atonal edges and harsh sonorities which to me is just written for effect and not with much substance.

Justin Morell, a jazz guitarist with formal training, has written a simply outstanding work here. Though each of its three movements is given a descriptive title (“Lost, Found and Lost,” “Life and Times” and “Terraforming”), it is clear from the listening process that he has found a way to mix modern jazz harmony—which usually shifts rapidly via the use of pivot points in the underlying chords—with modern classical form. The result is a series of three extended pieces that do indeed make up a concerto in style, with moments that clearly sound classical (i.e., the first rallentando in the first movement, in which clarinet and soprano sax play written, classical-sounding figures behind the solo guitar) with jazz orchestration, meaning no strings or exotic winds such as English horn, bassoon, oboe etc. Doubtless this will, as usual, confuse many jazz listeners, whose knowledge of improvised music is vast but who always seem to stumble when trying to absorb or describe formal structures, and annoy classical listeners who want strings and the full complement of winds.

And of course, at those moments when the underlying beat becomes quite funky, Morell will lose his “classical” audience entirely, but one of the things I really liked about this music was that every bit of it fits together with what came before or comes after such moments.

Harmonically, Morell is relatively conservative. His music stays within the parameters one heard from, say, Stan Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra of the 1960s, and although there are allusions to rock beats here and there, they do not stick around so long that the listener becomes fatigued by them. There is nothing in this music that will confuse the classical listener as much as, say, Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America, a brilliant piece that has yet to be fully appreciated. It is not much beyond the kind of music that Charles Mingus was recording in the mid-to-late 1970s, although to my ears the musical continuity and structural integrity are a bit stronger.

As for the guitar soloist, Adam Rogers clearly has an outstanding technique and can improvise around what Morell has written without going too far outside. My sole complaint is that he, like many jazz guitarists, plays with a soft sound profile. Everything stays at a mezzo-piano with no increase or decrease in volume, which gives his playing a bland quality that I find disconcerting, though the microphone placement is so close that he is always clearly heard above the ensemble. Whatever happened to the Django Reinhardts and Charlie Byrds of the jazz world? Are all jazz guitarists nowadays trying to sound like Jim Hall or Joe Pass? Just a rhetorical question. I’m sure they couldn’t tell me why they play so softly if they wanted to. They just do.

Morell produces some of his most interesting timbral blends in the slow second movement where, although he lacks an English horn or oboe, he does have a flute (played by Brian Bibb) to add to the mix. And here Rogers’ soft playing fits in the best because the music stays at a generally soft level. I also liked the way Morell created little melodic figures that, in most cases, would pass for riffs or licks, but here are knitted into the continuing fabric of the music, which gives them much more of a functional use. The melody played by the solo guitar at the five-minute mark is also exceptionally lovely as well as original. After an upward-rising figure played by the soloist at the seven-minute mark, the music pauses, followed by a slower theme played by the ensemble which leads, paradoxically, into a quicker passage played by the soloist with the orchestra, following which is a nice tenor sax solo leading back to the guitar. The two instruments then engage in what is probably an improvised dialogue, and wonder of wonders, they listen to each other and thus complement each others’ phrases rather than each going off on his own tangent. Biting trumpet figures interject the music, followed by a well-scored brass passage that acts as a summation to all that has gone before.

In the third movement, “Terraforming,” Morell has the guitar play rapid eighth-note figures while the brass bite and nip around the edges before moving into a complex melodic figure based on the guitar’s opening statement. He then has the guitar play further rapid figures as the brass interjects more harmonically complex interjections before things become more complex, mixing and matching different elements from these little cells.

Overall, then, a very neat work in both the formal and colloquial sense of the word. Recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


One thought on “Exploring Justin Morell’s Guitar Concerto

  1. Pingback: Reviews of Concerto for Guitar and Jazz Orchestra – Justin Morell

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