Morse Code

The rock world often forgets that much music achieves its evocation and influence without words. Whole forms -- notably jazz and classical -- downplay the need for verbal lyricism, and within others there are plenty of instances in which the instruments do all the talking. Cutting between these parameters was the mid-Eighties explosion of instrumental rock. It lasted only a few years before slipping back into the shadows, but one guitar player plugged into it before it was popular and he's still around today writing, playing, and producing the same kind of music.

"I'm not good with words, that's why I'm an instrumentalist." That's the first thing guitarist Steve Morse says when he calls to be interviewed. The 38-year-old Morse has moved through many phases in his musical career. But instrumental rock's the one that stuck, a style he says he'd play as a hobby if he couldn't make it his profession.

And at one point, five years ago, he did just that. Beleaguered by the uncertainties and insecurities of the music biz, he temporarily jettisoned his career to pilot commercial airplanes. He continued writing and playing, and after six months he realized he missed the music too much to stay away. "I wanted to have a retirement plan which would offer security," explains Morse. "But then I discovered that if I have to do a job, I'm going to work for myself and not worry if it pays a lot."

Morse has been flying planes for eighteen years, and at his Ocala, Florida, home, the view from the back yard is of a landing strip. Morse says that it comes in handy, because he flies frequently to perform, and then quickly gets back to his wife and little boy. He says that no matter where touring takes him, he doesn't miss family members' birthdays, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. He'll be doing the flying to his Fort Lauderdale show on New Year's Eve so he can get home that same night to celebrate with his family.

So you can begin to visualize the type of person Morse is -- at once high flying and down to Earth. What kind of player is he? Advice from his music column "Open Ears" in Guitar for the Practicing Musician offers a clue: "You can't be sloppy doing one job and expect your playing to be great." In other words, consistency, in every aspect of life, is all.

Morse is one of those rare practicing musicians with a college degree in his back pocket. Attending the University of Miami in the early Seventies, Morse was a studio-music and jazz major, although his principal field of study wasn't jazz, but rather classical guitar. According to Randall Dollahon, director of jazz guitar and associate professor of music, Morse was the only student to be a jazz major while playing classical guitar as well. Morse says his fellow jazz students didn't relish his fusion of the two styles. "In my freshman year, we did a forum of original folk-rock music, and a teacher put up a flyer saying `Christians vs. the Lions' because they were waiting for our slaughter when the jazz majors heard it."

During his years at UM, Morse remembers jumping at the chance to play a gig anywhere. The university once had something strange called Watermelon Day, where free watermelon was passed out to students. Morse got his band, Rock Ensemble II, together and played during this festive day. Although the band spent the afternoon jamming for the students, the musicians were denied watermelon as payment. No seed money.

Since that time, things have improved a bit for Morse. He formed the Dixie Dregs, a band that still comes together occasionally for a reunion gig, including an appearance slated for January 7 on the Tonight Show. Morse recorded as a solo artist and even toured with old-timers Kansas. At the time of that stint, he was frequently asked by reporters, "How did it feel to write `Dust in the Wind'?"

Anyway, Morse has cut three albums for MCA, the latest being Coast to Coast, an appropriate title considering the amount of ground covered. It opens with the ripping solo-structured tune "User Friendly" and closes with the cleverly titled "Flat Baroque." Accompanying Morse on the album are drummer Van Romaine and bassist Dave LaRue, who lend an incredible sound while ascending to the technical level Morse sets. "Personality is the biggest deciding factor when it comes to playing with musicians," says Morse. "These guys are into it, and they're resourceful enough to find work when we're not playing."

Morse struggles to describe the kind of music he plays -- jazz, rock, classical, and bluegrass influenced as it is. He declares it rock-based, with an emphasis on short compositions to hold listeners' interest. "Too bad there's not a bin at the record stores with that label," he says.

One vein of the industry Morse wants to tap into is soundtracks. He scored the chase scene for the movie Ski Patrol and would like to try more. Meanwhile he wrestles with a dual bane: His music isn't commercially viable in a big-sales way, and the backing for his music from the industry is scarce. "I'm always turning on the radio to hear new avenues of music, but there don't seem to be many," he notes. "The industry is tighter than it's ever been." So while MTV and the charts forsake him, Morse keeps working, keeps playing a music that's gone in and out of style over the years. Musicians respect him, and there's a certain durability to what he does. "I'm a blueprint that proves you don't have to get a big record deal to be doing music," he says. "Here I am -- working."

THE STEVE MORSE BAND performs at 8:00 and 11:00 p.m. Thursday at Musicians Exchange, 729 W Sunrise Blvd, Ft Lauderdale; 764-1912. Tickets cost $23 per show or $39 for both.