Ben Morris to Bring Norwegian Jazz-Folk Fusion to Newport
By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications • July 24, 2019
It’s become an annual tradition: every year since 2016, The ASCAP Foundation has partnered with the Newport Jazz Festival to offer a live slot at the Festival to an exceptional recipient of the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award. This year, the Herb Alpert judges chose Ben Morris – a versatile composer/pianist equally accomplished in the jazz and classical realms. He joins a stellar lineup of ASCAP jazz talent, including Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Sons of Kemet, Makaya McCraven, Buika, Jenny Scheinman and more. We caught up with Ben Morris a few weeks before his Newport debut, to find out what we can expect from his set.
The Newport Jazz Festival has such a long, renowned history. What does it mean to you to be playing at Newport this year?
I visited the Newport Jazz Festival for the first time in 2012 to hear jazz legends Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue, Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny. I distinctly remember seeing the fog rolling in over the harbor at Fort Adams State Park, entirely veiling the bridge—a visceral image that has stuck with me. Being at Newport was a magical experience, and I never imagined I would be performing at the same festival only a few years later. It’s an absolute honor to be invited and to be playing the same day as some of my musical idols. It’s an important affirmation at this time in my career, giving me a chance to showcase my music and curate a full set of original material. I am extremely grateful to the Newport Festivals Foundation for providing such an opportunity.
You're debuting a new quintet at Newport. What's special about this particular combo, and the music you’ve written for it?
This new quintet features Zosha Warpeha on Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, violin and voice, Juan Olivares on clarinets and saxophone, Dan Montgomery on bass, Evan Hyde on drums and myself on piano. My compositions for the quintet take elements from traditional Norwegian folk music, modern jazz and contemporary classical music tied together by a strong sense of storytelling. This music has personal significance for me, as I studied folk music and my family history in Norway on a Fulbright Grant this past year, and much of the music I’ve written for the ensemble tells the story of my family and my travels.
Zosha, Juan, Dan and Evan bring many diverse influences to the table. I met Zosha through Fulbright; she will be studying fiddle in Oslo next year at the Norwegian Academy of Music. She approaches her instruments—each of which has an extra lower string, putting them into viola range—in a unique way, fluidly and dynamically combining them with her voice. Juan and I worked together at the Aspen Music Festival last summer through the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble. Juan’s classical training and versatile approach to his instruments add a lot to the group; not only is he an excellent reader and musical storyteller, but his improvisations incorporate influences from around the world, from Klezmer and Balkan music to wild experimentalism. Dan and Evan, both classmates of mine from the University of Miami, form a tight, solid rhythm section, rounding out the sound of the group. I wrote the music with each of the musicians’ playing styles in mind.
You’ve composed in so many different idioms. What are some of the unique challenges and joys of composing for jazz ensembles?
One of the most joyful aspects in writing for jazz ensembles is the workshopping and rehearsal process. In other settings like classical chamber ensembles, orchestra or film scores, the musicians and conductor don’t interact as often or as thoroughly with the composer. However, with a small group like this new quintet, there is constant feedback, especially when I’m performing with the ensemble and can change things on the fly. Every performance is drastically different, and you can never predict what improvisers will bring to the table. As I’m composing, I can loosely imagine what they might contribute to the compositions, but it never truly matches the excitement and surprise that comes with hearing their interpretations for the first time. They always make my music better!
A challenge in composing for a small jazz ensemble is striking a balance between writing enough to keep the composition engaging and allowing the musicians to express themselves within that framework. I want to keep the music texturally interesting and achieve a variety of sounds that larger ensembles, like orchestras, offer. In a small group, you have to get super creative in the ways you change the texture—for example, why not have the clarinet play the bassline and the bass play the melody? How many sounds can you get out of a snare drum? I enjoy going inside the piano and playing around with timbre in ways not typically heard in a traditional small jazz ensemble setting.
You have studied music around the world. As a composer, what’s the pull of spending extended time abroad? Are you mostly looking for fresh sounds and ideas? Have you picked up on any differences in how music is valued in the other countries you’ve visited?
Living abroad has enriched my music with new rhythms, forms and philosophies. After learning about Asian traditional music through a course at Rice University, I visited Seoul, South Korea to study traditional Korean music at the National Gugak Center, which influenced the rhythm and timbre in my compositions. When I lived in Norway this past year, the open tonalities and lilting rhythms of Norwegian folk music found their way into my work. I am always looking to challenge my basic assumptions about music and try something new in every work, and immersion in other cultures is one of the easiest ways to do this. As a unique hybrid of musical cultures and influences, jazz lends itself well to mixing personal influences and music from other places in world. The music in my Newport set reflects this.
Traveling has also given me a new sense of perspective on the role of music in society. At the National Gugak Center, traditional Korean music is preserved and celebrated by the national government. Not only does the National Gugak Center preserve the music as a precious cultural and historical entity, but it also encourages the music to evolve with the times, commissioning composers to interpret traditional music in light of contemporary Korean culture. Similarly, in Norway, experimental cross-genre music is funded extensively by the government as a cultural asset, allowing it to flourish and giving musicians an opportunity to experiment without financial pressure. These models are inspiring, and we can certainly learn something from them in the United States, where arts funding is always at risk.
So many of your pieces are inspired by specific stories or works of art — a swim meet, your great-grandfather’s immigration story, MC Escher etchings, even children’s books! Generally speaking, what’s your process for translating a great idea into a piece of music?
Every day, I’m looking for new inspiration in the world around me. When I find something that strikes me—a painting, a landscape, a relationship, a plate of food, and yes, even The Hungry Caterpillar—I try to distill the “essence” of that thing or experience. What makes it unique? I write down a list of traits and try to imagine how I’m feeling. All of that informs the melody, harmony and shape of the music. Since music is such an abstract art, it is difficult to programmatically translate specific things about the experience, so sometimes I’ll just improvise based on that experience or thing. For example, one of the pieces you’ll hear on my Newport set, entitled Ymir’s Bones, is inspired by the primordial giant in Norse mythology, Ymir. After reading about Ymir, I felt the need to lay down a heavy groove inspired by his stomp and swagger.
As a time-based art, music works particularly well for telling stories, and a lot of my music is driven by narrative. In Edvard, which was awarded an ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award, I weave together a musical narrative that reflects the immigration story of my great-grandfather from Norway to the United States. The composition is broken up into three sections: the first paints an abstract picture of Bergen, Norway with fragments of Norwegian folk tunes and rhythms; the second is inspired by my great-grandfather’s overseas journey, featuring coloristic, dark gestures that recall dangers at sea and an unknown horizon; and the third captures the energy, noise and buzz of New York with a minimalistic groove. In listening to the piece, the audience goes on my great-grandfather’s journey with him.
You were handpicked to play Newport by The ASCAP Foundation. How would you say ASCAP and the Foundation have impacted your career so far?
The ASCAP Foundation has been pivotal in providing opportunities for people to hear my music and introducing me to important figures in the industry. ASCAP’s Cia Toscanini and Michael Spudic, and The ASCAP Foundation’s Julie Lapore, have been incredibly warm and welcoming, inviting me to their NYC office. In addition, I was fortunate enough to receive both the ASCAP Herb Alpert and an ASCAP Morton Gould Awards. Receiving the Morton Gould Award in 2014 marked the beginning of my professional composing career. In addition to introducing me to great friends and top musicians, it encouraged me to keep writing and legitimized my work. Institutional recognition and support are vital for young composers to keep working at their craft, and ASCAP does an amazing job at supporting young artists in this way.
Catch Ben Morris live at the Newport Jazz Festival’s Storyville Stage on Friday, August 2. Visit NewportJazz.org for the full lineup.
Visit Ben Morris online at benjaminmorrismusic.com.