A thirst for challenge and new experience fuels many jazz artists, who find exhilaration in the uncertainty that comes from improvising. Joe Morris, Sam Newsome and Francisco Mela, who played together for the first time as a trio at the Shea Theater on March 23, embraced their novel situation with gusto and confidence.
Morris, best known as a top-tier guitarist, played bass. Newsome, who came up playing tenor saxophone, was featured on soprano sax. And Francisco Mela, who grew up playing Latin rhythms, played drums with only passing reference to his Cuban heritage.
The result was a bracing, hour-long free improvisation that busted conventional niceties. Preferring to be closer to the 50 active listeners in the house, the musicians decided to forego the proscenium stage for the pit in front, and proceeded to worm their way into 100 ears.
For someone who has been impacting students for over two decades at the New England Conservatory, Morris has a fraught relationship with formal education. He didn’t go to college or a conventional high school, and he holds strong opinions about why “jazz education”, and the academy more broadly, has largely failed to foster creativity and deal with race. Over the course of his career, Morris has followed his own advice to students: make a scene with like-minded musicians and create your own opportunities. He has done that where ever he’s lived.
Morris is a music community organizer who has created scenes in Boston and throughout the Hartford/New Haven area. He co-founded the Boston Improvisers Group in the 1980s, and has a long history of producing and curating in Connecticut, especially with Real Art Ways in Hartford. In the last few years he has revived his fabulous monthly Sunday afternoon series at RAW called Improvisations Now. Ingrid Laubrock, Tom Rainey and Brandon Lopez will join Morris on April 2. It was instructive for us to compare notes on producing creative music.
After establishing himself as one of the most creative guitarists in jazz, Morris picked up the bass about 23 years ago. He is self-taught on both, and is in the process of adding drums and piano to his repertoire. His bass playing on Thursday was insistent, driving and inventive. He used a drum stick in addition to a bow to provide a throbbing bottom for the group sound.
Since 1995 Newsome has devoted himself exclusively to the soprano saxophone, and in 2005 started to develop a serious solo saxophone practice, using tubes, mutes, bells and balloons to provide an expanded sound palette. His Jazz Shares concert at the Wistariahurst Museum in December, 2019, was memorable. At the Shea, Newsome limited his bag of add-ons to chimes and a mute made of crumpled tin foil. Walking around his stationary bandmates, Newsome weaved lines of fractured melody, at times playing highly rhythmic staccato phrases or endless passages using circular breathing techniques. While in action, he waved his instrument from side to side, much like another paragon of the soprano sax, Jane Ira Bloom. Newsome is also a dedicated educator (at Long Island University in Brooklyn), and a writer. His recent book, Be Inspired, Stay Focused: Creativity, Learning and the Business of Music, is a deep, yet easy to read primer for musicians and lay people alike. He also writes fiction, and is close to going public with a novel and a set of short stories. Newsome will be back at the Shea Theater on April 15th, performing with Stephen Haynes’ seven-piece ensemble, Knuckleball.
Newsome and Mela, who hadn’t met before the gig, are both in their mid-fifties, and veterans of real repute. Born in Bayamo, Cuba and educated at the National School of Arts for Teachers, el CENCEA, Mela came to Boston in 2000 to enroll at the Berklee School of Music. Upon arrival, he realized he was offered only a half scholarship. Unable to afford the other half, Mela stayed in Boston, becoming a ubiquitous presence in the city and the house drummer at Wally’s Cafe. He now teaches at Berklee and has been a fixture in the ensembles of Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding and the late McCoy Tyner. His recent recordings as a leader on 577 Records includes William Parker, Cooper-Moore, Matthew Shipp and Zoh Amba. His drumming and his persona are infectious and ebullient. His kit was augmented by bongos and a frame drum, and he used it to propel the trio to ecstatic heights. His constant smile and yelps of joy lent momentum and good energy to the proceedings. It was great to finally meet him.
No fancy band name, no records together, just three creative souls open to making music with each other. I’m attracted to musicians who have vision, talent and drive, and are serious and humble about developing their genius. Joe Morris, Sam Newsome and Francisco Mela are like that.