Here’s a link and a “reprint” of an article on the Pacific Serenades web site, in preparation for the premiere of my new song cycle:


Composer Profile: Justin Morell
by Mark Carlson

It’s as if playing jazz guitar were in his genes—Justin Morell is a fourth generation professional jazz guitarist on his dad’s side of the family. Immediately before him, his father John Morell has been a very successful recording session guitarist since the 60s and has also had an active career performing in Los Angeles area jazz clubs.

His mother’s side of the family is full of musicians, too. Her father, Carl Fischer, was Frankie Laine’s music director and pianist for years and was also the composer of many hit songs by Laine. Justin’s mother, Carol Fischer Morell, was a member of the all-girl trio, The Murmaids, whose song Popsicles and Icicles was a major hit in 1964.

So with this family history, it is not a surprise that Justin continued the tradition of playing and composing in the jazz world. And in this day and age of artists crossing all manner of aesthetic boundaries, it is only a small surprise that he is also solidly grounded in the world of classical music.

I asked him if he had listened to much classical music prior to his arrival as a freshman at UCLA, when I first encountered him in my theory class. He said that his father had bought a handful of scores for his own study, including Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and string quartets. Justin got to know those works when he found the scores on the shelf, and he says they continue to be important music for him.

He told me that it was impossible for him not to play the guitar, since there were guitars all over the house as he was growing up. He started to take lessons at age nine and got serious about practicing when he was 12 or 13. By the time went to UCLA, he knew that his life was to be about playing jazz and writing music.

After graduating, he really wanted to pursue composing more seriously, “But at the time, I felt I had missed some important concepts about composing-or maybe I hadn’t grasped them yet.” So he was grateful for the opportunity to continuing learning about composing by trying things out, primarily on his own Septet, for the next several years. “The members of my Septet were very generous guinea pigs, and I feel like I learned to be a composer writing for that band. I got to experiment with form, counterpoint, and other things essential to the craft of composing.”

I asked him who his biggest influences as a jazz musician were, and he said his father was the biggest of all. But he also gives credit to Bill Evans, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, and pianist Russell Ferrante, of the Yellowjackets, whom he describes as one of the most remarkable musicians he has encountered.

Looking for a change of scene, he moved from LA up to the Bay Area, where he freelanced for a few years and then, in his early 30s, found himself at Cal State Hayward (now East Bay), where he studied with Frank La Rocca and earned a master’s degree. He describes the program there as wonderful, and said that La Rocha had a way of zeroing in on the things Justin needed to improve in his music.

As one who always enjoyed school, it was a natural step for him to continue with graduate work, next at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where he studied with Robert Kyr (an early Pacific Serenades composer, in 1990) and in 2011 finished his PhD.

He now lives in Portland, OR, with his wife Jennifer and their son, Loren. But not for long—he has just accepted a job at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, where he will be taking over the theory and aural skills courses and rebuilding their curriculum.

I was curious to know how he experienced the dichotomy between jazz and classical music. “Early on, I think I understood the performance issues of writing for a jazz ensemble, but it took longer for me to get at those issues for a chamber ensemble. And for a long time, I deliberately steered away from combining the two. But for two years now, I have tried to synthesize those disparate worlds. So far, I find it easier to take elements from classical to jazz, than from jazz to classical.”

His Four Songs for baritone and string quartet, on excerpts from Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe, will be premiered by Pacific Serenades on our May concerts. Curious as to why he would choose such a heady-sounding, classical text for these songs, he told me “Images in the poetry spoke to me, and I felt that they suited my style of composition. These poems are about the physical nature of the world—the structure of atoms, the nature of thunder and lightning—things I can wrap my head around. I felt that I could really get to the core meaning of the texts and then express that through the music.”

About writing for a voice along with string quartet, he said, “The great thing about it is that you’re dealing with five members of an ensemble who can have a conversation as equals. I like that a lot, that equality. One movement is particularly contrapuntal. Instruments interact and soar through each other; they blossom out of this texture, come to life on their own, and fade into background.”

Are there elements of jazz in these songs? “Jazz will always be part of whatever I write. But though the harmony in these songs is not that different from a piece I’d write for a jazz ensemble, the rhythm is not overtly influenced by jazz.”

For me, it’s so interesting to know composers long enough to be able to watch their work evolve and mature, to hear how they make a language of their own out of the varieties of styles they are steeped in. Thus, I am so looking forward to hearing Justin Morell’s new songs, to having them join the 105 works that have preceded them as works commissioned and premiered by Pacific Serenades.

Mark Carlson