The High Key Portrait Series: Jake Morelli

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Jake Morelli | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in biweekly installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.

About fifteen years ago, guitarist Jake Morelli met wife Donn Thompson, when he saw her perform with her vocal duo The Day at Iron Hill Brewery in West Chester. “I actually purchased a CD [after the show] that didn’t exist at the time, I found out,” Morelli recalled recently during an interview with two of them at WXPN’s studio. Morelli is charming, easygoing and disarming, and seems to put a great deal of thought into his reflections. He continued in earnest, “I mean I was so moved by what I witnessed [that night] on a lot of levels, that I just [gave them] whatever they asked for — and I think it was very modest, six or eight dollars.”

Thompson interrupted his account with a laugh. “We weren’t thieves, can I just interject here? It was eight dollars. And we were embarrassed that we had taken your money!”

The chemistry between the two of them is evident, as they took turns recalling the origins of their relationship: how half a year later the “very basic CD-R” of The Day’s finished recordings that appeared in Morelli’s mailbox would become his favorite piece of music; how a call a few years later from the late Rich Nichols — The Roots’ producer and a friend of Morelli’s — would connect the two of them for a live musical project to promote a new record; how Morelli recognized her voice during the sessions immediately from that recording that he loved so much, even without realizing at first who the singer was with whom he’d be working.

Since arriving in Philly from New York City two decades ago, the third-generation musician has had his skilled guitar handiwork in projects of all kinds. He’d played regularly at the legendary Black Lily sessions at The Five Spot in the early aughts, a beloved Philly soul artist showcase of which Thompson had hinted at hushed murmurings of a revival. Morelli started a reggae project with renowned drummer Chuck Treece, and he’s played gigs and toured extensively with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Jennifer Hudson, Lady Alma and Roberta Flack, citing the latter two as a major influences in helping him hone his recording and stagecraft skills. Morelli produced some of Thompson’s work too, as she records now under nom de plume DonnT, and started a record label with her that’s now distributed by Sony’s label group Red Music, out of New York. And he’s leant his guitar stylings to new music from Donn’s nascent project &More, a collaboration with Philly rap artist Chill Moody, He’s also produced their two singles, “My Own Light” and “Woah,” and will join the band when they perform at the XPoNential Music Festival on Saturday July 28th.

At the same time, Morelli’s been working on his own music as well, including new EP Good News, featuring Chuck Treece on drums and Nahla Bee on vocals. He’s constantly on the road as a touring guitarist, currently on a west coast run with Village People, and plans to launch a reggae/punk project called OnWa when he returns. He documents all of it on Instagram at @jmotone. Below, read our indepth conversation about his musical background, and how Philly helped amplify it.

Jake Morelli | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

THE KEY: Jake you’re from New York, originally — you came to Philly when?

JAKE MORELLI: I am. I came about twenty years ago. I moved from from New York, actually spent a tiny time in Newark, Delaware, but then landed in West Chester before I moved to Philly.

TK: How do you remember first getting involved in the music scene here?

JM: I had some friends that were living in that Delaware/West-Chester area, and got pulled into a scene quickly with them. There was this reggae band called KAYA back then, that was this really elaborate ten-piece band — horn sections and background singers, percussionists — and that band actually derived from another group that I wasn’t a part of called Tree Of Life, which was similar in size. You know, it was very much doing, you know, Bob Marley-type stuff, and Peter Tosh — but doing it a lot of justice, I would say, objectively. And Chuck Treece was playing drums for that group at the time, and my friend Keith Sunborn who was singing, possibly playing bass as well from time to time, was my initial connection. Pulled me into a show — it was a place called Rex’s in West Chester — and met Chuck and a few other people, this other guy named Gary Stuchell, who since then him and I started this band with Chuck called Onwa, which is this reggae and punk rock band, and had Bad Brains influence.

But Chuck specifically became this kind of counterpoint of connections for me, as I know since then, knowing Chuck for awhile, he’s done for a lot of people, which is amazing. Just started connecting me with a lot of singer-songwriters. Initially was playing with a couple singer-songwriters from Jersey — one girl named Laura Mann, this other girl Lisa Richardi — just really talented stuff. And then Chuck was letting me know about these jam sessions that were going on, that I never made it to initially. He was telling it was at, you know, the living room of [one of the Roots’ players houses] or something to that effect. And the next thing I heard about it, it was now it’s at The Five Spot, and Black Lily was in full-effect, and he made sure I got through to that. And I became kind of a regular participant that was going through, just soaking it up like a sponge.

You know, being from New York, and also a musical family, as I grew up I just noticed there was this cut-throat element that felt a little cold about that New York scene that I did not notice in Philly. It was actually quite the opposite, more like the “City of Brotherly Love,” really felt like it transcended into the experience of “oh, you play too?” So at first, my experience there was the end of the night, the jam session would open up, so I’d hang around. At first I wasn’t getting up, because there were twenty other musicians that knew that person — you know how the jam-session etiquette is, you have to know that person — eventually I got my turn to do it, and then from there started getting connected to artists like Lady Alma, who became one of my favorite Philly artists. It was an interesting connection between her and this guy Walking Bear, he goes by, Tony Allen. Tony Allen was her manager but would show up to rehearsals every week with new music. And prior to then, I would get whatever it might be for the show — like a dozen songs, you learn them, and you’d kind of do those songs for a bit, maybe you’d throw in a new one every now and again. But Tony would have new music every week, and I would just eat it all up. It was really just fresh and had a lot of vitality to it.

TK: In Terms of Philly artists, is there a particular artist that influenced you in Philly?

JM: My experience with Lady Alma was very influential, because it taught me about what was going on here. Just when you thought you may have kinda had it figured out, it was like evolving and evolving. We rehearsed like clockwork every Monday for at least a year, and of course had shows here and there throughout it all. But yeah, it was great, it kept me on my toes and kept me thinking fresh. I grew up in a very diverse listening environment as well — my dad is a serious music historian as well as a serious drummer, and now runs a very successful boutique music booking agency up in New York, Jack Morelli Music. But one of them — outside of Miles Davis, who’s not from here — was John Coltrane. He was a bigtime influence. Guitar was the instrument that I took to in a way because there was this sort of Jimmy Page — not literally, but this figurative — Jimmy Page element that was close to me growing up.

My dad played with these guys from Ram Jam, who re-did Leadbelly’s “Black Betty.” Howie Blauvelt, the late and great, was my godfather, and he was their bass player. He also was in the Hassles, with Billy Joel, and their guitar player was Jimmy Santoro. And he was very Jimmy Page-esque, played this Les Paul gold-top through a Marshall at least half-stack, if not a stack, with the Echoplex [pedal], that not many people were using. Jimmy Page was. But it was this close. So I was sort of blown away, like in the Memorex commercials. [laughs] I think I was so impressed by the guitar itself. Drums was actually my first instrument — my dad and grandfather both played, they sat me on that first. But I say all that to say that, although I took to guitar and it’s still sort of my most proficient instrument and the one that I’m called to do the most, I really look at music in sort of a non-guitaristic type of way, it’s more of a very open musical type of way, and Coltrane was a great example of an artist that really just opened my ears up to different harmonies, and you know, his compositions.

Jake Morelli | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: What do you remember from the first time you played Philly, and how would you contrast that to New York clubs?

JM: Most of my experience playing in New York was with the family band, so it was with my dad and my godfather. There was this band that evolved from Ram Jam called Spitball, and the concept of Spitball was, just as you can’t tell how the pitch is coming at you, that was sort of the philosophy behind that band. But it was so much fun. It was a little tragic in that at one point my godfather passed away, and it was just from that rock and roll type of life, of him thinking he was Superman, type of thing. Prior to that it was amazing, but I still think it had a bit of that family business vibe, in that I’m in a club, playing with my dad, and he’s like Mr. Advice, in a very good way — I am who I am musically, largely because a lot of his suggestions. But it was great. I think I also noticed as we got further into the city, there was this sort of like, “these are my gigs” type of thing, and it felt a little more cut-throat, like I was saying. Almost like there was a real sense of competition. And of course you know, the music business is competitive, but I think I felt it a little more firsthand there.

And then Philly it was like, Black Lily, but also [the club] South St. Blues, and there was a very very fun element about that, where I’d be going up with people like Steve McKie — the drummer who played with Bilal forever, and is now in the great Killiam Shakespeare project — and this guy named Leon, but it was like very freeing and open type of expressive, improvisational music. For example, one night, Floetry showed up, I think Tony Allen had brought them in, and it was literally the first night they had ever been in Philly, and then they became this household name. There were just a lot of great experiences like that.

TK: As an aside, did Black Lily stop because of the 2007 fire at Five Spot? Was there no desire back then to keep it going at another venue? 

JM: I think it was the fire. I was slightly outside of the whole bureaucratics of the planning and whatnot, but my take of it would be that it sort of did what it needed to do. You know, it really gave that platform for your Jaguars, your DonnT’s, your Jill Scott’s, Erykah — whoever came through there to really just have that voice and people to just be like enthralled as to what they had to say or sing about. 

TK: What’s do you love most about the Philly arts scene, in general?

JM: It really seems very honest, very raw, very truthful and very cutting-edge from a lotta different angles, from a genre-bending angle, to also, in my experiences to pushing limits on these instruments that I’ve never witnessed firsthand before. You know, you can go back and watch crazy electric Miles type stuff and see those guys who were really boundary-pushers then, and I really still see that on a weekly if not daily basis here in Philly, where guys are taking these instruments and doing things with them, both individually and collectively, that it’s just really inspiring. In both the ways of just a music-appreciator, but also as an artist and a musician myself, it really keeps me on my toes. Philly keeps me motivated and pushing, and it’s gritty. Philly’s got a lot of great grit to it, it’s real raw. And also it doesn’t have too much of an element of gloss to it, just for gloss sake. It’s not that packages can’t be tidy around here, but it doesn’t seem like in other places that I’ve been that maybe they’re trying to add this extra layer of polish just for the sake of it. It really feels very real and honest.

Jake Morelli | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: And what if anything do you find frustrating about it?

JM: Well, in my experience, one of the frustrating things that I’ve seen . . . it’s such a difficult business at the end of the day, and there are so many facets. If we’re talking about getting proficient or potentially as far as pushing boundaries on an instrument, that’s one thing, and that’s very serious. But like, do you show up for rehearsal on time, type of thing? [laughs] Or anything else that can go into that boat. It can be little things, even. Some of which I may even be guilty of sometimes, like are you in a rehearsal that really should be taking your undivided attention, but you’re on your phone, either at all or more than you should be. I mean, it sounds silly, but if you look at it from the perspective of let’s really try to respect this music thing to the fullest extent, then really let’s get there. And if I had to answer that question, it would be the general concept of me seeing a lot of talent potential there — and it could just be a youthful thing, at times — but there’s not either the willingness or the know-how to sort of step the game up in other maybe professional aspects, if that makes sense. Maybe you’re late to gigs or soundchecks or lobby call, or whatever it may be. And you’re like, dude, you’re this crushing musician, you gotta get it together. Yeah, so that’s been a little frustrating.

I must also say, just to finish that statement, I really see it happening less than more. I really feel like the scales are balancing out between talent and cats who really do have their stuff together. It’s funny, my father and his booking agency has this interesting philosophy of he only hires happy musicians [laughs], because he knows monstrous people, but there are other people who are just so grateful at the end of the day. So I find myself gravitating toward those people, not who are just happy musicians but people who are professional as well. Because at the end of the day, you’re trying to get a job done to the highest level possible. So you wanna be connected at the highest level as possible.

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