Jorge Morel: A Remarkable Guitarist/Composer

Anyone who is a fan of guitarist/composer Jorge Morel will be interested in reading his independently published biography, Jorge Morel:  The Remarkable Journey of a Legendary Guitarist/Composer, written by J. Vincent Moran.  The book, which appears to have been released in March of this year and marked as a “second edition,” clocks in at 400 pages, as it spans a cradle-to-end-of-career recount of Morel’s ups and downs and encompassing what it truly means to live a musician’s life.

Morel performing his dazzling rendition of Bustamante’s La Missionera.

Early television footage of Morel in concert.

The back pages include a comprehensive list of Morel’s original works, ranging from his works written for guitar in every conceivable variety, from guitar and orchestra pieces, concertos, chamber music, guitar quartets, guitar and small groups, solos and his arrangements for duets and quartets, guitar and string quartet and flute and guitar.  Also included: a chronological discography and selective bibliography that acknowledges both Morel’s guitar-playing and composition.

For those unfamiliar with Morel’s work, he is a legendary Argentinian-born fingerstyle guitarist with a flair for jazz and Latin music on the guitar.  In the 1960s, he performed nightly at The Village Vanguard, where he shared billing with jazz legends Stan Kenton and Herbie Mann and drummer Max Roach. 

He shared billing with The Kingston Trio at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1961, and he has performed as a soloist at Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Wigmore Hall in London and Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center.  Morel is known for his brilliant arrangements of popular songs and jazz standards and had been lifelong friends with Chet Atkins, who had arranged for him to record with RCA Victor, following Morel’s work for Decca Records.

If you are expecting a polished, well-edited book, forget it.  The stories are pure Morel, leaping from the page with all his charm, honesty, emotion and musical flair for high Latin drama.  That is to say, if you feel offended by the random misspelling and typo, then you’re missing the point, which is to enjoy the ride.

Morel has always been a first-rate raconteur, which tends to be the mark of a great composer.  In his old apartment off Queens Boulevard, he practiced his art of story-telling whenever he had me over for a home-cooked dinner along with his good friend, Luthier Music shop owner Tony Acosta.  We sat at Morel’s tiny kitchen table, each swapping tales about the World of Classical Guitar, as if discussing a favorite but predictably eccentric and contrarian uncle, all while Morel prepared his late wife Olga’s dish of Puerto Rican-style chicken and rice, served up with a bottle of red wine.  Afterward, we decamped to his living room afterward to play guitar. 

On the wall above Morel’s living room couch hung an oversized photograph of himself in concert dress, seated at a white linen-covered dinner table alongside none other than the legendary Andrés Segovia, who is fully recognizable in all his owlish, eyeglass-wearing plumpness of later years.  Of course, there was a story to this photograph, one that Morel recounts in the book. 

As I recall his direct version of it, Morel could barely contain his delight over what turned out to be a very human moment when he found himself seated beside his lifelong musical hero.  The men appear to be enjoying a pleasant discussion of classical music, but in truth, the photograph commemorates Morel’s complicity in sneaking a small plate of dietary contraband at El Maestro’s request:  shrimp.  “He was in his 80s at the time,” Morel told me.  “And that small plate of shrimps brought him such joy.  What the hell, I figured.  You’ve got to live life.”

It comes as no surprise that a life lived fully is the theme of Morel’s biography.  Morel is upfront and unsparing about the many vicissitudes that could have easily wrenched him away from a career in music, along with all the bad choices, missteps and heartbreak along the way, which include (at the very least) losing his mother at age 12, only to see this echo of loss strike again in later years for the loss of a good friend who had given him his stage name, followed by the shocking loss of his beloved wife Olga, who was in her 30s and pregnant with their second child.

Yet good luck intervened as well in many ways. Morel performed for Frank Sinatra and was asked to write a major guitar and orchestra work, Aires Ibero Latino, for flamenco legend Paco de Lucía.  And he found a good friend in concert promoters Tony Acosta and Maurice J. Summerfield of Ashley/Mark Publishing in the U.K. Another one of his many career triumphs includes the premiere of his concerto for guitar and orchestra, Suite del Sur, dedicated to the memory of his wife Olga, which he performed as a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of Zubin Mehta. 

Throughout much of the book, Morel has the interesting vantage point of recounting his life from an 80-year-old’s perspective, which is to consider, at each turn, the strangeness of how his life worked out, with humble acknowledgment of all the “what-ifs” that arise in the face of fate and choices made.  He is also a man of deep gratitude for his enthusiastic homage to all those who supported his career along the way.

Morel is courageous for choosing an unvarnished approach in telling his tale, which reveals how much of a composer he is at heart.  The most memorable melodies incorporate a palette of highs and lows with rich dynamics, that, when conveyed with spirit, resonates for all listeners, and, in this case, for his readers.

If you’re up for a raw, honest biography that includes back pages of outtakes from some of Jorge Morel’s more comical stories, you’re in for a treat.

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Jorge Morel in concert.