Joe Morello‘s modest, bespectacled demeanour belied his role as the go-to man in the world-famous Dave Brubeck Quartet, the crisp thwack of his snare drum and relentless ride cymbal frequently lighting a fire under that most organised of ensembles. Aided by Teo Macero‘s widescreen production, his famous solo on ‘Take Five‘ was heard around the jazz world, a masterpiece of drama and precision. Morello’s playing was in some ways a throwback to the big-band era with its emphasis on rudiments and slick snare-drum syncopation, but his sense of space, rhythmic architecture and use of dynamics were very modern. Like Tony Williams, Morello was a master-tuner of the drums – they never sounded flat and lifeless under his jurisdiction. And, also like Williams, he could play soft, loud or very loud…
Joe Morello was born on 18th July 1928 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Though he had impaired vision at birth, by the age of six he had started to study violin. Just three years later, he was a featured soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But by the age of 15, he was studying the drumset with Joe Sefcik, a local player who was the pit drummer for shows in the Springfield area. Morello developed quickly and sat in with friends such as saxophonist Phil Woods and guitarist Sal Salvador on any gig they were called for. As a result, his musical experiences ranged from military playing to weddings and parties.
He set off for New York and soon found himself playing with an impressive cast of musicians including guitarist Tal Farlow, bassist Jimmy Raney and pianists Stan Kenton and Marian McPartland. After leaving McPartland’s trio, he turned down offers from the Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey bands. The offer he chose to accept in 1956 was a two-month temporary tour with the Dave Brubeck Quartet which ended up lasting twelve-and-a half years.
The quartet quickly became one of the most celebrated in jazz history, feted by the popular press and musicians alike. The million-selling album Time Out featured compositions in decidedly unjazzy time signatures like 7/4, 9/4 and 5/4, yet Morello navigated this tricky terrain with ease and inherent good taste, always providing a stable reference point for the listener. His strong groove and wristy fills made the 5/4 time of ‘Take Five’ sound like the most natural thing in the world. Rumour has it that Paul Desmond composed the groundbreaking tune after hearing one of Morello’s snare drum practice drills.
There were other audacious highlights during his time with Brubeck; the thrilling extended solo on ‘Castilian Guns‘ from the At Carnegie Hall CD which progressed from finger drumming to subtle brushes and then some apocalyptic stickwork, and the trading-fours finale to the Bravo! Brubeck! Mexico City concert which possibly surpassed even ‘Take Five’ for sheer rhythmic exuberance.
After leaving Brubeck in 1968, Morello briefly led his own band and became a highly-sought-after clinician and teacher. He gave lessons to future Pat Metheny/John McLaughlin sticksman Danny Gottlieb and wrote a series of very successful drum books such as the influential ‘Master Studies’.
Dave Brubeck said of his friend, ‘Many people consider the rhythm section of Eugene Wright and Joe Morello in my quartet as being one of the most consistent, swinging rhythm sections in jazz, and drummers worldwide remember Joe as one of the greatest drummers we have known.’
Morello is survived by his wife Jean.
Joseph Morello, musician, born 17 July 1928; died 12 March 2011.