If you were to sit with a group of well-versed guitarists and the name Steve Morse came up, an unnerving hush might galvanize the environment before someone would finally pipe in with a tone of reverence. Perhaps, a comment on how cool and authentic Morse is would come out; maybe something about his busy and frantic schedule; and most likely, there would be talk about how he's been able, with relative ease, to fill some mighty big shoes while maintaining his own sense of identity and style.
Even Ritchie Blackmore, the legendary axe man Morse replaced in Deep Purple, reserved his highest praises for the Florida-based guitarist. Simply put, it's not easy to find fault with the guy.
I discovered this firsthand when Morse was initially scheduled to speak with me and inadvertently missed our appointment. He called me the next morning and humbly apologized. I was caught off guard and completely impressed with how genuine and sincere he was.
I'd actually bumped into the guitarist on a couple of occasions at the NAMM show held each January in Anaheim, California. I spoke with him briefly when he was just about to hit the road in support of Purpendicular, his first album with Deep Purple. He was extremely upbeat and excited at the prospect.
When I picked up the CD, it seemed as though Purple was experiencing a rebirth. As much as I loved Blackmore's contributions, the 'new' Purple seems a little...snappier. Morse' guitar work saddles up nicely next to Jon Lord's Hammond organ. And, of course, when the guitarist takes off on his own, his country-flavored, Baroquian leads are no less than captivating.
2002 is proving to be an eventful year for Steve Morse. Split Decision, his latest effort with the Steve Morse Band, is a variable smorgasbord of styles and temperaments. Unfortunately, he hasn't had the time to go out and support it on the road. In fact, when we spoke, the guitarist was gearing up to head over to the Far East for a handful of shows with Purple. This summer, Purple are joining the Scorpions and Dio for a powerhouse package with dates throughout America. Although there are no immediate plans for a new Deep Purple studio album, the latest ripple in the band's agenda concerns the semi-retiring Jon Lord. So I asked Morse about the exact status of Lord's standing.
"When it comes to the big tours, he won't be there," he says. "But Jon will be sitting in for the British gigs later this year."
Don Airey, a veteran keyboardist who has played with Rainbow, Ozzy Osbourne, and Jethro Tull, is handling the keyboards for the big tours. Morse explains that the transition wasn't that difficult. "Don is really good and a total pro."
As a replacement himself, Morse has settled into the role rather comfortably. "My idea has been to play whatever makes the song sound good," he says. "Playing someone else's stuff is no big deal. I have no artistic qualms about it at all. It came natural."
Although Deep Purple has been instrumental in providing Morse with a bigger audience, the guitarist is just as devoted to his other projects. The Steve Morse Band may well be the nurturing ground for his ideas, as evidenced by the release of Split Decision. There is an unflinching, strong interaction between Morse and his band mates: bassist Dave LaRue and drummer Van Romaine. Morse attributes this chemistry to an unspoken intuitiveness between the three. "With the trio, any time I want to shift something, I can do it," he says. "They are extremely attentive in that way."
To facilitate the recording process, Morse has forged a unique relationship with his record label, Magna Carta. "I got with them basically because they are building a stable of people who have a real strong identity," he says. "They are doing things on a different level. They (Magna Carta) have some kind of concept for everything. It's unusual for a record company to have a hand in creating the music. They came up with the idea for the last album. I was surprised that a record company would come up with an idea I would really like."
Apparently, it was the folks at Magna Carta who suggested the thematic formula behind Split Decision, a hybrid of hard rocking instrumentals at the front end and more easy listening material on the back end. "They said to do what ever you want, and I couldn't decide whether to do a band album or a solo thing, something like High Tension Wires (1989)."
It was the mix bag approach that resulted in the CD being a band and a solo effort -- all at once. For the musical connoisseur, Split Decision is an eclectic collection that leaves no stone unturned.
There's "Busybodies," a classically flavored exercise inspired by Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto." Morse explains, "Bach was one of the first composers who sort of captured my naïve side. I pretty much love everything he has written. It was a wonder to study him in college."
"Marching Orders" and "Great Mountain Spirits" both draw on folk and Celtic styles. "I've always really identified with this kind of music. It's so original," Morse says. "What some people call Old Time Fiddle, I call Celtic, Irish folk music. I've been doing that for over 25 years."
At the other end of the spectrum, "Mechanical Frenzy" and "Midnight Daydream" build on the momentum that Morse laid down on his previous disc, Major Impacts.
As if the guitarist didn't have enough on his plate, Morse still manages to find time to get together with the Dixie Dregs, the jazz-rock fusion ensemble he formed in 1975 while attending the University of Miami. "We're like a telethon that gets put on every year," he laughs.
At this juncture, Morse approaches his hectic career with an incalculable air of detachment. "The music business is sort of swallowing up my life," he observes. "But the bottom line is when I get a chance to play guitar — especially with other musicians in a creative setting — it's just great."
June 13, 2002