If you want to change your playing you have to change how you hear. Take note of the qualities in people’s playing that you enjoy. If their music resonates with you, it is telling you something about yourself!Chris Morrison
In the past year or so, the name Chris Morrison kept popping up on my Facebook feed and in the various FB Jazz Guitar related groups I participate in. Recently I decided to do a deep-dive on the Web to see what all “the fuss” was about. Turns out, the “fuss” was warranted big time! I contacted Chris and was very pleased when he accepted my invite for an interview…along with a 5 Desert Island Pick feature…and here we are.
In this featured interview, Chris shares with us his philosophy of music, his relationship with Joe Diorio, how he started learning with Sal Salvador, his connection with the late, great Mike Longo and a whole lot more. So sit back and enjoy this highly entertaining and informative interview with the great Chris Morrison.
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JGL: Thank you Chris for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?
CM: I am 56
JGL: Cool…and what geographical area do you reside in?
CM: I grew up in Milford, CT but have lived in Monroe, CT for 25 years.
JGL: At what age did you first start playing the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?
CM: My dad was a guitarist and the guitar was always around so I always kind of poked at it. The way I learned was sort of backwards from most people my age. I was familiar with jazz long before I knew anything about pop music. My first memory of a specific recording was Tal Farlow playing “All The Things You Are”. Do you remember the portable record players you could carry from room to room with the speaker in the lid?
JGL: YES! LOL…I had a couple of them when I was a kid…
CM: Well…I would randomly take records out, like any kid does with their parent’s record collection, and there was a record called This Is Tal Farlow. I dropped the needle on “All the Things You Are,” and I was just immediately fascinated. I played that song over and over. It made sense to me. I was probably seven or eight years old. I think that being exposed to jazz and other forms of improvised music at such an early stage in life allows an aptitude for listening later on. Exposing a child to high information music at a young age is very helpful.
JGL: I totally agree. And speaking of youth, when coming up as a young player did you attend a formal educational institution or are you self taught? Was there one – or more – particular moments that opened the floodgates so to speak as you went about learning this music?
CM: It was mostly a combination of my dad showing me some things and me trying to imitate the music I heard in his record collection. When I was a little older my father bought me a Jamey Abersold record of Charlie Parker tunes. I would put the record on and play along for hours. I am sure it sounded awful but I was having the best time. I had no idea what I was doing and I did not care. When I was in 7th or 8th grade, my father taught me two jazz solos by rote. He sat across from me in my room and showed me the Charlie Christian solo on “Grand Slam” and “Benny’s Bugle”. It’s amazing the amount of patience he had. He would play the record then show me where to put my fingers on the neck. I memorized the solos and played along with the record. I would try to take what I learned from these two solos and move it up and down the fingerboard trying to match it up with chords I heard on the records. I came home from school each day and played for hours through trial and error. I loved to improvise. After high school I went to The University of Bridgeport to study with Sal Salvdor.
JGL: Nice! We’ll get to Sal in a minute or two but first, and apart from your dad and Tal, who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
CM: I enjoy everyone’s playing but the biggies were Pat Martino, Jim Hall, Joe Diorio, Wes Montgomery, Joe Beck, George Benson, Allan Holdsworth, Kenny Burrell, Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, Grant Green, Doug Raney, Kevin Eubanks, Robben Ford and Lorne Lofsky.
I listen to a lot of classical music these days and I find that listening to Stravinsky, Mahler, Bartok and Brahams helps me to grow. In Jazz I like saxophonists Gary Thomas and Greg Osby. I always come back to Allen Holdsworth’s music. Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Bill Evans are always in the rotation. I am very interested in Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.
I am continually inspired by people like George Benson and Chet Baker. If you listen to George Benson singing a scat solo without his guitar you can’t tell if it’s the guitar or his voice, it’s the same thing with Chet Baker. When he scats I’m always “Is that his voice or his trumpet?” They are both so in touch with their instruments.
JGL: You’ll get no arguement from me Chris!! In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
CM: Joe Diorio’s approach to music and life resonated with me. When I first started going over to Joe’s house I actually was seriously considering quitting music. I was teaching and not playing out much. I said, “You know Joe, I used to just play. My hands would just kind of move and all I had to do was listen. You see, people would tell me that I was playing the wrong way, that I had to know exactly what was happening when I was playing. Unfortunately, I listened to them.” Joe just started laughing and said, ”You had it right the first time, I can get you back there…you just need to hang around with me.” So I did.
JGL: Now that’s some great advice and of course, it appears he was right! 🙂 Similarly, has there been a major influence in your life who was NOT a guitarist and why?
CM: Pianist Mike Longo. A friend of mine, Andy Schoenfeld, who produced Mike’s Rhythmic Nature of Jazz DVD series encouraged me to come down to New York and meet Mike to see if I could find a spot in his teaching calendar. My intuition said it was the right thing to do. Michael was very encouraging. At my first lesson we played together and he was kind of like “Wow, you can play!” After we played, he immediately had me play the Djembe...
JGL: Not to interrupt Chris, but another fine guitarist by the name of Chris Whiteman had a similar experience with the Djembe and Mike with Mike stating “If you don’t understand African Rhythm you’re never going to swing!“…
CM: Yeah! Well since I had studied the DVD’s I knew how to play the patterns. But playing it alone at home and playing it together with Michael was like the difference between someone telling you what water is and then jumping head first into the ocean. He would make a distinction between “what” to play, as in melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint and form and “how” to play as in touch, time, tone, technique and taste. Michael had discovered a way for people to access the “correct spot” and that was exactly the place I needed to get back to.
We need to learn to trust that if you’re operating from this “correct space” there isn’t much to do except sit back and allow the music to reveal itself to you. I didn’t intellectually know it at the time, but I realize now that “correct space” was nothing other than the space of freedom I felt as a child. No one else I’ve ever met in my life had a technique to help you click yourself back into that place.
In total Mike came out with four DVD’s that are still available from the Consolidated Artists website. I played on the fourth DVD we taped at saxophonist Bennie Wallace’s house here in CT. Although the exercises can seem simple it is important for students to understand that these exercises are not something that you practice for a few months and then you’re done. I teach Mike’s curriculum at Bennie Wallace’s Back Country Jazz Camp every summer and am always excited at the impact it has on student’s playing. I’ve played Michael’s warm up exercises every day for the past ten years.
JGL: Nice. I’ll definitely check out this series. And while on the topic of learning…what was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?
CM: When I started it was just learning the guitar. I worked on picking, scales, arpeggios, reading from violin, trumpet and clarinet books. I sometimes feel that jazz students forget that it is our responsibility to learn our instruments on the same technical level as a concert pianist, violinist etc. I always wanted to have enough technique to play whatever I could imagine. These days I practice the daily exercises that Mike Longo and Joe Diorio showed me. After that I mostly just play and try to stay in the flow that Joe and Mike would speak of. I just want to be a good improviser.
JGL: Don’t we all brother!! Speaking of practice routines, you are highly regarded as an educator. What would you advise beginner students of Jazz Guitar to work on if you could only choose two components and why?
CM: First: learn the guitar! If you want to play a line over CMaj7#11 and you can not find the chord tones in every possible location on the instrument you are going to have a problem. I had a wonderful teacher named Don Neary who would write me out pages of patterns to practice. All the patterns had to be done in every possible fingerboard position and key. It is like working out. If you want to be strong you have to build the muscles.
The second point is to listen to your intuition. If you want to change your playing you have to change how you hear. Take note of the qualities in people’s playing that you enjoy. If their music resonates with you, it is telling you something about yourself!
JGL: Thanks for that Chris! And seriously, it should be no surprise then when I mention this great quote attributed to Joe Diorio about you: “Chris is a brilliant musician and a great person. I have encountered very few musicians with his talent for playing AND teaching. This guy can really play!” Wow! That must have felt good! Now…you not only had the great Joe Diorio as a private teacher but you also were part of a guitar duo with him. How did you and Joe get together and what were/are the pros and – if any – cons of playing alongside a legend such as Joe?
CM: Joe was the best! I cherish every minute I spent with him. I learned so much just by watching how he worked. My dad and Joe both studied with a teacher named Vincent Bredice when they were young. My dad used to tell me stories about Joe when I was a kid to try and inspire me to practice. I just wanted to play baseball.
I first met Joe on a little brunch gig we did in Orange, CT when he was visiting. It was amazing to sit next to him and hear those sounds. After he had the stroke, he and his wife Tina came back to Waterbury full time. That is the point when Joe and I started to get together at his house, sometimes in the summer I was over there 2-3 days a week for lunch and dinner. This went on for years. Joe was fearless as a player.
The first performance we did together was at Jack Wilkens’ 70th birthday party. It was also the first time he had played in public in years. I had no idea what he was going to play until we went on stage. He would not call a tune, he would just start playing!
JGL: Like a boss!! Which brings me to another great player/teacher: Sal Salvador. You had mentioned that you also studied with Sal early in your development as a player. How did you both meet and what did you take away from his tutelage?
CM: Sal was THE guitar teacher in CT and when it was time for me to go to college my dad knew that Sal was the best teacher for me. Sal taught you how to play the guitar. You would go to your lesson with a big stack of books. He was a great teacher, a sweet guy and had a great sense of humor. He was very encouraging but at the same time expected you to do your homework.
JGL: Nice! Sal was a great player and I would encourage readers to check him out. Tell me Chris, who else of note have you played and or studied with and how did these associations come about?
CM: I have been lucky to play with so many wonderful players. Recently I have been doing some concerts with saxophonist Bennie Wallace that are great fun. John Abercrombie and Vic Juris were always very encouraging. Arranger Bill Finegan and guitarists Don Neary and Joe Beck were some other great musicians that I was fortunate to spend time with. I also did correspondence lessons through the mail with Charlie Banacos for about four years.
JGL: Wow! That’s a great list of teachers. And speaking of which, you have quite the academic pedigree as well, both in the years of graduate and post-graduate studies as a very popular music professor in a variety of formal institutions. What made you go this route and do you feel that one could make a living playing Jazz without having to go the academic route so to speak?
CM: I am a homebody. I am happiest sitting in my room practicing all day. I have been teaching since high school and have always enjoyed it. The college teaching just kind of fell in my lap as I never consciously made the decision to be a college educator. Playing is playing. The only way to get better is to have the instrument in your hands. Having a degree may help open some doors but your ability to connect with people is what will keep your employed.
JGL: I totally agree! On that same topic, do you give private lessons and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
CM: Yes, I do teach privately. Just reach out. I enjoy spending time with any student who works hard. Motivation and discipline are what matters to me.
JGL: Shifting topics a bit…you have an album out with saxophonist Andrew Beals – Maybe Someday – which I believe was recorded in 2017. What was the impetus in getting that album out and how did it do?
CM: Andrew and I have been friends for years. We both had some original music and we both love playing with organ groups so it just kind of fell into place. I am not really sure how well it did. I had some people tell me they liked it. Once I do something I let it go and get on to the next thing. I would like to think my playing is very different now than it was in 2017.
JGL: No doubt. I also really enjoyed your Beals-Morrison Quartet At La Zingara video clips on your YouTube channel and found that you have a very unique style of playing – both soloing and comping – that brings to mind cats like Mick Goodrick, Harry Leahy, Tim Miller, Joe Diorio (obviously) and if I’m not mistaken, more than a slight nod to the wonderful Jim Hall. Does this come naturally or did you – at some point – make a conscious effort to follow the “path less traveled?” If so, how did you go about creating such a unique voice on the guitar?
CM: Thanks! I just listen to a ton of music and let it sound like it wants to. I just want my playing to be honest.
JGL: Simple enough…lol 🙂 Speaking of your YouTube channel, where does the name “Bebop Buddha” come from…from what I can hear, it is quite apropos 🙂
CM: I practice Nichiren Buddhism. I have always been a spiritual person. I do a lot of reading. One day I was on the phone with Garrison Fewell, a great guitarist from Boston who unfortunately passed away in 2015. At that time Garrison was facing some challenges with his health but his life was so inspiring. So I said, “Can I ask you how you sound so genuinely happy while you are fighting this illness? He said, “Write this down” and he spelled out “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.” He told me that I should say those words for about fifteen minutes twice a day and see what happens.
At the time my family was up in Vermont so I was home alone. If they had been home I never would have sat myself down and chanted at a wall…but since they were gone I gave it a try. I noticed that after fifteen minutes I felt better. I think that was the connection I also felt with Joe Diorio and Mike Longo. Both of them believed that EVERTHING in music needed a spiritual basis.
JGL: Something defintely worthy of further study. And speaking of worthy, from what I have read, you cut your teeth in Organ Trios with the likes of Richard McCrae, Bobby Buster and Eddie Buster. What did you take away from these experiences?
CM: My friend, saxophonist Herb Wilson, got me the first steady job with Richard McCrae, and once people heard around town just in with the other groups. Richard McCrae was a formally trained musician, he had me purchase “Twentieth Century Harmony” by Vincent Persichetti and would work on it with me during our dinner breaks. It was a drastically different learning environment than music school. It’s hard to explain, but it had a huge effect on my own teaching. To say that Herb Wilson did me a huge favor is an understatement!
I also learned that I needed music to have that groove to it. I love harmony but if the blues go away I miss it. Eddie Buster in particular had an amazing time feel. Players like Grant Green,Herb Ellis, Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree had time feels that made everything sound great. I always thought that Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree sounded like Ray Charles singing through a guitar. There was a guitarist in New Haven named Wayne Boyd who influenced me. Wayne did not have an extensive vocabulary but he had an incredible feel. New Haven saxophonist Clarence Perry and Wayne Boyd were the best blues players that I had close contact with.
JGL: To paraphrase B.B. King: “Playing the blues is like telling the truth” and we all should be truth-sayers! Now before I go in a different direction all-together -LOL- let’s speak a little on gear shall we? What do you have in your collection of guitars and is there a special “go-to” guitar that you instinctively grab for?
CM: My main guitar is a Roger Borys Jazz Solid. It is a semi-solid but it feels and sounds like a jazz guitar. It doesn’t feedback and also works well with pedals. I a few of Roger’s guitars. Roger is a great friend and I could not be happier with my instruments. I also have a couple of Telecaster-type guitars that are fun.
JGL: Nice! I notice a BOSS pedal board in your live videos. What effects do you use and what kind of amp do you favor when playing live or in the studio?
CM: I have had that Boss board since high school. I use it to change the pedals I have in it for any playing situation I am in. I like Boss Pedals because I am familiar with how they work. I may use delay, overdrive, pitch shifter, tremelo, or a synth pedal. For most gigs I use a Henrickson Bud amplifier and for louder situations I use a FUCHS Jazz Classic.
JGL: Any preference to strings, picks and that sort of thing?
CM: Current strings are 12-50 with a wound third and I am always changing picks! Usually they are pretty thick.
JGL: Are there any current Jazz Guitarists out there that have grabbed your attention?
CM: I really enjoy Jeff Parker’s music.
JGL: Interesting. I’ll need to give him a listen. Are you influenced by any jazz guitar recordings that are less well known?
CM: Three that I always tell people about are: Red Mitchell/Joe Beck Empathy; Lorne Lofsky’s It Could Happen To You; and Howard Roberts’ The Real Howard Roberts.
JGL: As we begin to wrap up this interview, do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician distracting or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to the managers and agents? Do you have a manager or agent or is it all a one-man operation?
CM: I don`t think about the business side at all.
JGL: LOL…’Nuff said! Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
CM: Use your imagination and practice!
JGL: When you’re not on the band-stand or in the class-room – be it virtual or physical – what do you like to do to unwind?
CM: I like to be outside walking in the woods.
JGL: Nice! Tell us Chris, what is one thing that people would be surprised to find out about you?
CM: I love the old black and white Universal Studios monster movies with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr.
JGL: Nice!! I do as well. In fact, every Saturday night I watch a show called Svengoolie on the ME TV netowrk which features those type of films which I love…but I digress…lol! What does the future hold for Christopher Morrison?
CM: I just started a new teaching position at The Regional Center For the Arts High School in Trumbull CT. My son and daughter were both students there and I was impressed with the school’s program and faculty. I am both proud and excited to be a part of the school I am also fortunate to be part of the Fairfield University music department led by the wonderful bassist Brian Torff. I also want to play and record as much as possible!
JGL: Awesome!! I look forward to your future endeavors and once again Chris, thank you for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. All the best in all that you do!
CM: Thank you Lyle!
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