Justin Morell


The Bay Area has a notable avant-garde jazz scene that has produced its share of internationally regarded heavyweights (saxophone quartet Rova, pianist Vijay Iyer, multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, to name a few). But sometimes the less out-there, though not necessarily stuck-in-the-mud-conservative, performers seem to get lost in the shuffle. Take guitarist Justin Morell. While old-school types tend to adhere to the theme/solos/ theme-and-swing-it format, and the très avant faction eschews conventional structure altogether in favor of spontaneous interplay, Morell takes the best aspects from both to come up with the original blueprint that his trio presents on Triorange, the 10 tunes from which walk gracefully the line between the delicate, cerebral "chamber jazz" of the avant zone and the more straight-ahead, blues-based styles.

While stylistically rooted in the classic bebop approach of forebears Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery, Morell is not a "retro" player in any sense. He's got the aspects of the style down pat (softly blurred phrasing, minimal low-end twang, bluesy undertones), but he uses its vocabulary in a most refreshing manner. He avoids the fleet, showy facileness of many jazz guitarists, never blitzing the listener with a flurry of notes when a few well-placed ones will do nicely. Likewise, pianist Leonard Thompson and bassist Todd Sickafoose let the music breathe, exhibiting an invigorating conciseness. Thompson plays with an endearing balance of poetic lyricism and bright simplicity, recalling Keith Jarrett and Vince Guaraldi, who composed and played the music for the perennial Peanuts TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. For his part, Sickafoose subtly keeps momentum going throughout, engaging in some lithe exchanges with the others. The exquisite result heard on the album successfully pulls off a few neat tricks: It's mellow without being lethargic, sophisticated without being pedantic, and soothing without fading into the background.

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