The Evolution of Jazz with Angela Morris

Angela Morris at Legion, photo by Peter Gannushkin.

If you’ve heard live music in Brooklyn, there’s a good chance you’ve come across the multi-hyphenate and chameleon performer Angela Morris. She often performs around North Brooklyn, frequenting venues such as Silent Barn, Trans Pecos, and Legion, along with now-closed experimental powerhouses Sunview Luncheonette and Manhattan Inn. Blurring musical genres and marrying avant jazz with pop, her music is at once whimsy but wise, stirring yet relaxing. But labeling Morris’s style may be futile; her timbre shifts depending on the night and her role. Morris plays multiple instruments with almost as many bands — including Rallidae, TMT Trio, and Pep Talk — all the while conducting, singing, or switching between strings and woodwinds. Here, she discusses her move from Toronto, Brooklyn’s evolving music scene, and — despite the strains of a performance-induced injury — what continually motivates her to share her craft.

GP: When did you come to Brooklyn?
Angela Morris: It was in 2011. I finished my undergrad in 2008, and I came to do my master’s. I studied jazz composition at CUNY Queens College with [Grammy nominee] Darcy James Argue who’s a big band composer that I originally met at the Banff Centre doing an international jazz workshop. I always had a vague idea that I wanted to come to New York, and then one year at Banff I met a bunch of people who lived here including Darcy and I said, “Okay, it’s time to move to New York.”

GP: How has New York shaped you?
Angela: It’s not easy to come here — it’s not easy for Americans to move to New York, let alone if you’re not from here and you have other obstacles. I was blissfully optimistic about this transition. For me there’s a need to leave the place I’m from to find what I’m interested in. New York is really amazing because you have to say no to a lot — you can’t see everything you want to see, you can’t experience everything you want to experience because there’s so much happening, so you have to kill the fear of missing out. And also, you decide what you don’t like, and that changes over time. It’s a permeable barrier. There’s an attribute that is my own and Canada’s as a culture to be very polite and accepting, and those are wonderful things, but as an artist you can’t be friendly toward every idea because you lack clarity. You need to see what attracts me and what repels me and I think New York is good for that because if you’re not serious about what’s attracting you there’s a lot out there that is already repelling you.

GP: Talk to me about Rallidae; it seems to be one of your more primary ensembles.
Angela: Yes, it’s more principal in that we’ve released two albums, one EP and one full length. It’s kind of central to my way of thinking about music. Unfortunately we don’t get to play together as often as I like. The core of it is Alex Samaras, who is the reason we don’t play together a ton because he lives in Toronto. He sings and there is nobody in the world like him, and I have come to accept that we are sometimes going to play without him, but there are some songs where he doesn’t sing lead and songs that are instrumental. To me the project of Rallidae is songs in improvised habitats — the intersection between pop and folk forms and improvised music, kind of textual and harmonic language.

Morris conducts a big band in the St. John’s Presents series at Greenpoint’s St. John’s Lutheran Church, photo by Migiwa Miyajima

GP: A lot of the music seems to be almost tempo-less. Tell me about creating musical unity in something that feels so free in style.
Angela: I think about things spatially, like creating a habitat, a room or an environment that musical events live inside of, and also the people in my band are all phenomenal improvisers with great senses of form, so the form of the pieces changes a lot from when I first imagine them to when we end of performing them. I like working with songs because I really like text, I really love poetry and reading. And I’m a rare instrumentalist who remembers lyrics over other things. A lot of instrumentalists don’t hear lyrics at all, it astounds me.

GP: But you sing too!
Angela: Yeah. I kind of resist being labeled as a singer. People assumed for so long that just because I’m a woman I’m a singer, cause that’s still a thing. But I do sing in public and on recordings, so I guess I am a singer, I can’t deny it.

GP: The song Bird on Rallidae’s “Turned, and Was” is stunning. Can you tell me about that one?
Angela: I wish I wrote its lyrics, it’s so beautiful. It’s based on a poem by Canadian writer Johanna Skibsrud. I wrote that during a time when I had a repetitive nerve injury here in New York, and that was the resurgence of my singing because I could sing even if I couldn’t play. I couldn’t even write with a pen. I’m all better, but lots of people get injured but no one talks about it. It sucks that it costs a lot to get your body looked after in this country but besides this aspect of it I don’t think it’s anything to leave out or not talk about it because its so stigmatizing. People are playing in pain and it’s real.

But about Bird, it’s a very open-ended piece. We developed an arrangement that was working with the poem’s narrative; it has a beginning, middle, end, so I guess the form is almost like a Mobius strip. It’s also repeating itself but in a way where it’s not clear where the beginning, middle, and end is, and then, “Woah, it’s over.” I love that about the poem.

Morris, far right, with her band Rallidae

GP: How would you describe the Brooklyn music scene?
That question invites comparison to other places, but I think there is a tremendous concentration of amazing people doing really interesting things. There are still a few ever-changing spaces where it’s possible to do conceptually ambitious projects with zero dollars, or close to that. God help us all when that is no longer true. I’d say it treats me great because I know all these incredible people and I get to work with them. The struggle of finding space to do things, heaven forbid I mention getting paid, it’s very bleak. The culture is people really don’t pay for things. I mean, if you’re outside the high art institutions — but I don’t think commercial artists are having a very easy time. I play with some and even they get told, “Well so and so is doing this just for the exposure,” but I’d like to pay the people who are playing in my band and put them in a hotel. Is that crazy? I don’t think that’s a commentary on Brooklyn but global business. After the election so many people said, “Oh maybe I’ll subscribe to The New York Times or The Guardian and maybe I won’t just read the articles online until I’m cut off,” I mean myself included, but I actually did it. I shelled out for some subscriptions because journalists are working for little too. I don’t know why there’s so little curiosity about that.

GP: Do you have a favorite place to play in Brooklyn? I know a lot of the venues you frequented have closed.
Angela: A lot have closed. I had to change my CD release location because Manhattan Inn closed. The best places to play are DIY, artist-run places that depend on a group of people to pay the rent and volunteer their time to create programming, so I’m grateful those places exist. I think Silent Barn [603 Bushwick Ave] is a great example of a place that’s been doing that and been around for a while. 

GP: Any advice for people trying to make a splash in the local music scene?
Angela: Find people who inspire you and who you’re excited to make things with, and make things. Tell people and share it. The thing that has always motivated me is bringing people together, the excitement of people doing something all at once, even if I don’t know what it is ’til it happens. I love that.

You can check out more of Angela’s music and see her upcoming performances by checking out her site. Here’s a video from her group Rallidae:

About Billy McEntee

Billy McEntee has been fortunate to work for arts non-profits in Boston, Denver, Berkeley, and now New York. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Brooklyn Magazine, Indiewire, HowlRound, Eclectica Magazine, and others. He's usually getting wine at Dandelion or eating cookies at Archestratus.

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