“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. Continue reading →