Morrissey is a bassist in his early 30s, living in Brooklyn. Like many improvising musicians who loosely fit that demographic, he has an interest in indie-rock and singer-songwriters. Unlike some, he has worked extensively in those fields, with the likes of Ben Kweller, Sara Bareilles and Andrew Bird. He’s also the frontman of Taurus, a four-piece Brooklyn rock band with a tuneful and bittersweet air.
North Hero is Morrissey’s second instrumental jazz release, and at times — as on a track like Hands Crystals Anderson, with its throbbing bass line and motorik beat — it does call indie-rockish energies to mind. But that’s not unusual for an album with this pedigree. As he did a few years ago on The Morning World, his debut on Sunnyside, Morrissey leads a combo featuring a fellow Minnesotan, the saxophonist Mike Lewis, who has likewise toured with Bird, as well as with Bon Iver.
But while The Morning World introduced a bandleader-composer eager to lay his cards on the table, North Hero feels more measured and patient. Morrissey’s current quartet features Lewis along with the pianist Aaron Parks and the drummer Mark Guiliana, and their rapport runs casual yet deep. These are players who bring equal focus to a heavy dirge or an odd-metered slalom while never sounding academic.
And it would be foolish to argue that they aren’t rooted in the greater jazz tradition. One Worn Mile has the bleary cowpoke saunter of an outtake from Way Out West, the Sonny Rollins album. Electric Blanket is a post-bop waltz with an interlude perhaps inspired by Debussy. And Midland Texas Picnic Area, a corkscrew swinger, elicits a two-minute solo from Parks that would lower the boom at any jam session.
It’s no idle detail that North Hero was produced by David King of the Bad Plus and Happy Apple, two bands with intrepid angles on the rock-meets-jazz equation. (Lewis is a member of the second one.) King, who has been a mentor to Morrissey, played drums, bracingly, on the previous album. He does something no less vital here, which is to encourage an unselfconscious style-blender to be true to himself.