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One of the dividing lines between rock ‘n’ roll and the jazz which helped give birth to it was the fact that rock was less about the ensemble and more about the featured performer.

The music quickly gained an image as reflecting a singular vision of the artist suited for the post-war spirit of individualism and while it still required a cohesive band to pull it off, the focus was clearly on one, maybe two, figures.

But Joe Morris was a refugee from jazz and as a trumpeter and only part-time passable singer, he wasn’t suited for the spotlight and so he carried over the group aesthetic, first through instrumentals and then, after losing his primary musical partner saxophonist Johnny Griffin, he began to emulate fellow jazz-raised turned rocker Johnny Otis and built a formidable ensemble featuring multiple vocalists alongside instrumental hot shots.

Here that approach reaches its zenith showing that the two genres, while now far apart, still could coexist in theory if nothing else.


Can I Come In, Baby?
In the annals of rock history Joe Morris is at best known for being just a footnote in the Atlantic Records story, releasing the first notable single in their journey as well as later on notching their first #1 hit with Anytime, Any Place, Anywhere.

Aesthetically speaking when tallying up the sum total of his contributions thus far (admittedly using our own somewhat subjective scores) he’s been slightly better than average (5.25) with a pretty hefty catalog to his name.

In other words, he’s not a star, not a massively influential figure and has no singularly defining musical characteristic to his name. But to his credit his records are mostly well arranged and nicely played and show a fairly wide stylistic scope, but there’s no overwhelming sense of greatness to be found which would let him transcend the era and give him some lasting acclaim.

Great moments for sure… even a few borderline great records here and there… but no defining image to latch onto. The fact that this era of rock is historically neglected to begin with and coupled with the fact that Morris died tragically young in just a few years time, it means there’s virtually no recognition of what he DID accomplish, which is a lot more notable than first appears.

It’s on songs like Let’s Have A Ball Tonight which show his unique place in this era of rock, a bandleader who has admirably evolved with the times creating a record that is a raucous and slightly disheveled but shameless in its enthusiasm.

It may be a slightly inferior response to his own Jump, Everybody Jump, employing many of the same attitudes and structural ideas, but when you’re having so much fun doing it how could anyone complain?

Get All Your Troubles Off Your Mind
Though not generally perceived as an innovator, the record starts with something would have lots of influence over the years with the staged but very authentic sounding party-atmosphere set by the band and assorted hangers on getting into it verbally before the music kicks off.

This technique always has the potential to be used just to prop up a record that otherwise wouldn’t stir much emotion, but when done right – Junior Walker’s How Sweet It Is to pick just one famous example – it can set the mood perfectly for what is to follow.

Joe Morris picks an ideal song for it with Let’s Have A Ball Tonight, an unambiguous invitation that the record more or less lives up to, even if he pushes the idea to the limit by eschewing the melodic vocal it needed to fully surpass the concept itself.

So let’s start with the vocals, which center around a drunken – but ostensibly sung – chanting of the title by the band while Morris himself speaks/sings the lines in between. None of it really adds up to much, but the story is in the setting, not the commentary.

To that end there’s also an awful lot of talking done in the background with the same hectic unfocused style and to be fair it pretty much replicates the mood of a party where you overhear snatches of dialogue as you stagger around the room with a drink in your hand before throwing up, passing out or getting laid – hopefully not in that order.

Morris and company don’t go that far of course, but the vibe is authentic even if the music accompanying it veers between past and present, jazz and rock, although you could argue it does so in a way that replicates the eclectic playlist at most parties. Maybe that was coincidental, but if it was intentional it’s pretty ingenious even if it doesn’t quite make for a seamless listening experience.

But the parts themselves of course are well played, especially the guitar which adds a slightly menacing vibe to the proceedings, though it’s buried a little too much to really make an impact unless you’re listening for it. The second horn break featuring Morris himself playing a muted trumpet brings things back to the 1940’s when Joe was playing behind Lionel Hampton rather than leading his own band, but even that doesn’t derail the song as so often happens when looking backwards too far simply because the rhythm behind him never lets up for a second.

All things considered it’s sort of a free-form piece with a unifying theme and attitude, each person contributing something distinctive. Maybe you could say a different element or two could’ve been added to really create a frenzy (a booting tenor would’ve been a nice touch), but what Morris and his band brought to the table represented the kind of bash that they were familiar with and it’s hard to fault them for that.

Besides, a party’s a party and this one sounds sounds like a good time was had by all… including those of us forced to listen from outside the open windows.


Everything Is Going To Be Alright
If there’s a sense that Joe Morris’s historical importance is rather limited – and if a cursory look at his releases gives the impression he was only a fair to middling presence on the scene – then that’s not quite an accurate reflection of his career.

Because in the singles era the quality of B-sides varied greatly, and sometimes labels pushed a subpar song as the A-side thinking it had commercial appeal, it’s probably fairer to judge the quality of an artist by how often they are better than average for their day and to see whether those peaks are merely lumped together during one brief stretch or are done in just one narrow style which might suggest they were rather limited performers.

When looked at that way, Joe Morris fares much better.

His best records – the green numbers here – are fairly frequent (now eight in all with more to come) and span multiple years with different musicians, singers and stylistic traits.

Like many of them Let’s Have A Ball Tonight was not a hit but it was a really good record, bridging the gap between past and present while pointing to the future in how songs could be framed to create a distinct atmosphere.

In a world that values numbers over narratives Morris might not seem all that important, but if it’s only the headlines that grab you then you’re missing out on some pretty good stories, artists, records… and parties… along the way.


(Visit the Artist page of Joe Morris for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)