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Upping the Dosage

Orchestra Morphine takes Morphine's spare jazz-rock to new improvisational heights

by Matthew T. Everett

Billy Conway, one of two drummers for the jazz-art-rock collective Orchestra Morphine, has had plenty to think about in the last year. In July, Mark Sandman, the leader of Morphine, the moody, jazz-inflected trio that Conway had performed with for a decade, suffered a fatal heart attack during a performance in Italy. Then, in February, Morphine's final album, The Night, recorded just before Sandman's death, was released. And now, the former trio has grown into the nine-member Orchestra Morphine to carry the music from The Night out to audiences.

Speaking from his home in New Hampshire on the day before Orchestra Morphine sets out on a three-week tour to support The Night and their own self-released, self-titled live recording, Conway sounds reflective. He's quiet, and seems guarded about this project.

"It's been a tough year," Conway says. "But I feel like I have to do it. I signed on to do this, and the benefit of doing it is worth it. When we did the artwork, a lot of times we didn't feel like doing it. But it's a reason to celebrate somebody's legacy rather than avoid it. Sometimes it's hard and sometimes it's touching. But it's worth doing."

Orchestra Morphine's current tour is an unusual set-up for a rock tour, particularly one that prominently features Sandman's peculiar, iconoclastic vision. As Ann Powers wrote in a recent New York Times review, "Morphine made its mark by working with deliberate limitations," crafting a distinctive, slinky sound with a spare line-up of drums, Dana Colley's saxophone, and Sandman's slithering bass and smoky vocals. Orchestra Morphine, on the other hand, has two drummers (Conway and Jerome Deupree, an original member of Morphine), two sax players (Colley and Russ Gershon), a trumpeter (Tom Halter), two singers (Laurie Sargent and Christian McNeill), a bassist (Mike Rivard), and a keyboard player (Evan Harriman). The group performs Morphine songs—focusing on the songs from The Night—in new, fluid arrangements, loosening the strict boundaries laid down by Sandman and allowing for more expansive interpretation of his songs. There's a risk, with so many players, that the band will devolve into sloppy jams and free-jazz-lite noodling to fill in the songs; instead, the music stays true to the disciplined Morphine sound. It's not a departure from the earlier incarnation's tight, jazzy grooves; McNeill, who handles much of the singing, sounds remarkably similar to Sandman, and the top layer of saxophones lends the songs a familiar feel. But underneath, the band is looser, more open, more swinging, with more dynamics to choose from. It's not jam rock; it's a tight-knit group of professional musicians who know when to play and when to step back, leaving the spotlight on the songs.

"This is a great bunch of players," Conway says. "When it really gets going it's like riding the big horse. All of us played with Mark and each other, so it's a family affair. The concepts in Morphine, we still honor those things, whether it's an orchestra or a trio. It's hard for a musician to not play when he's on stage, but we lay out and make room for each other."

Conway says Sandman always wanted to experiment with a larger band. Whether the trio would ever have expanded into something like the orchestra, he's not sure. But he does like the new set-up, and he thinks it's an appropriate forum for Sandman's music. "I don't know if [Morphine] would be what this band sounds like," he says. "But it was always in the backs of our minds to tour with a big entourage and fatten up the songs. It's still about the songs, whether it's with a trio or an orchestra. What matters is, 'Does the song resonate?'"

These songs, the last work recorded by Sandman, apparently do. Reviews of early shows in New York and the band's hometown of Boston have been strong, and Conway says the group may last as more than just a one-shot tribute to a departed friend. "Considering that we've learned all the songs and have toured, it would be a shame not to record after this," he says. "I'm sure we'll record, and when we do that see how it feels. We've got lots of material, and we'll record some Morphine stuff and do it and see how it feels."

But whatever the future of Orchestra Morphine, the experience of performing Sandman's final album for appreciative audiences has been therapeutic for Conway. "The idea was to go out and play these songs. We wanted people to hear this music. Mark was proud of it, and we're all proud of it," he says. "It wasn't an easy decision. But it's healthier for Dana and I to play these songs. It's easier to be in a room with people learning the songs than listening to the record."

June 15, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 24
© 2000 Metro Pulse