Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris                                                                                        ©2015 Gérard Rouy

In the effort to find new modalities for composers – many of which are implicit in Butch Morris’ groundbreaking works, whose great variety even stresses his flexible term Conduction – there is an eagerness to portray the conductor of classical repertoire as handcuffed or ham-fisted. However, the great conductors of the standard classical repertoire represent a tradition of listening that is most germane to 21st Century music. This is not a tradition that leads to uniform results, or proves – absent the composer’s own versions – that the best results are achieved through a conductor’s proximity to the composer of the work at hand. If the former was the case, then there wouldn’t be the diversity of satisfying approaches to Mozart’s late symphonies, represented by, among others, Josef Krips’ and Pablo Casals’; the latter would hoist Eugene Ormandy’s recordings of Shostakovich way above most others, a status they do not currently enjoy.

While there are bountiful examples to argue what the role of a conductor should or should not be, there is one idea that perhaps most, if not all can agree: Conductors apply their aesthetics as a form of triage as the clock ticks down to when the ensemble takes the stage. Regardless of the situation – a jazz composer working with a student band to fulfill grant requirements; the junior conductor of a symphony orchestra filling in for its principal conductor; Morris shaping a piece from scratch with a group of improvisers, most if not all of whom have never played together – conductors have to prioritize on the fly. Tempi, dynamics, attack, and balance head a lengthy list of considerations that must be addressed, and with the pressure increasing second by second.

It is at this point that the role of a conductor can begin to merge with that of the composer. Duke Ellington is the best example of this, a composer who continually tinkered with arrangements and led his orchestra through changes they were seeing for the first time in performance. Granted, his ability to do so was predicated on having an orchestra of long-timers who played hundreds of gigs, year after year – and Billy Strayhorn. It is an approach that would have quickly derailed if Ellington was saddled with pick-up bands. Therefore, the portability of Morris’ approach is significant. As documented in the now 20 year-old box set Testament: A Conduction Collection (New World), Conduction is an approach that yields compelling music whether Morris worked with Turkish traditional musicians, university students, or electronic music-makers, usually with the time constraints many composers of through-composed works would find inadequate.

Most, if not all invocations of Ellington as a composer entails his negotiating the symbiotic tension between material and process, which, if unsuccessful, leads to the listener at home to check on the laundry and the concertgoer to weigh the respective virtues of tapas or Thai as an after-gig meal. In large part, Ellington is a great composer because of his proximity to the bandstand, and his articulated need to throw a spark that’s picked up by his orchestra and bolted back to the audience. Having hundreds of performances per year is equally important to considering Ellington in this regard, and not just because practice makes perfect. This was an everyday thing for Ellington, a luxury precious few other composers have tasted even for a season. Subsequently, Ellington didn’t need an inventory of gestures as extensive as Morris’, 18 of which were described in the booklet for Testament. The comparison of present-day composers to Ellington therefore has to acknowledge, if not compensate for, their paucity of opportunities.

Nobody can argue that Morris didn’t get his music out into the world, leading approximately 200 Conductions. However, roughly 3/4s of them have yet to be released on CD; for a sense of scale, consider only 16 were included in the 10-CD New World box. Subsequently, we know enough about Morris’ work to realize we’ve just scraped the surface, and for each newly issued Conduction to bring substantial new light to the scope of his work. Recorded at the 2010 edition of the perennially ambitious Sant’Anna Arresi Jazz Festival, Possible Universe, Conduction 192 (NuBop/NBR/SAJazz) is no exception; with ample portions of engaging thematic materials, on-point improvisations, and interludes that finely feather the edges between the prepared and the spontaneous, it is both a fine jazz-friendly point of entry for newcomers while giving long-time listeners much to consider when placing it within the context of Morris’ overall output.

Morris shares Ellington’s propensity to write to the strengths of his musicians, which, in Morris’ case, change wholesale from project to project, although musicians as diverse as turntablist Christian Marclay, pianist Myra Melford, and percussionist Lê Quan Ninh have returned time and again over the years. On this occasion, Morris not only enlists repeat contributors like Evan Parker for his 15-piece ensemble, but also cohorts from the downtown loft era like David Murray and Joseph Bowie. With Alan Silva (who plays synthesizer) as its keystone, Morris configured the ensemble in an arch, the instrumentation of one side mirroring the other. There are intriguing pairings throughout the ranks: Murray and Parker on tenors; Bowie and Tony Cattano on trombones; percussionists Hamid Drake and Chad Taylor; guitarists Jean-Paul Bourelly and On Ka’a Davis; bassists Harrison Bankhead and Sylvia Bolognesi; altoists Greg Ward and Pasquale Innarella; and trumpeters Meg Montgomery and Riccardo Pittau.

Morris gave them a trove of strong materials, both sketched and fully rendered. “Possible Universe” is both one of Morris’ more jazz-informed and scored conductions, containing two of his more infectious themes. They are a reminder that Morris was one of the more distinctive writers in the ‘70s, bringing a propensity for tangy, even sunny tunes – nurtured in part from early proximity to masters of the catch phrase like Horace Tapscott, John Carter and Bobby Bradford in LA – to a predominantly howling and scowling New York loft scene. “Music for the Love of It,” which Morris recorded with Billy Bang on Sweet Space in ‘79, said it all: He could have been one and done with that tune. The theme that emerges from long horn tones and shuffling brush work midway through “Possible Universe” is almost as uplifting, a glee-threatening riff that gives plenty of room for playful embellishments, turned around by an about-to-soar ascending phrase – by the end of this eight-minute section, the whole band is singing. Then there’s the finale (a term that should be used stringently, but certainly applies here); birthed by a miasma highlighted by Murray’s pleading tenor, it prompts associations with the adagios of Julius Hemphill for its pungent bittersweet ambivalence.

Despite the strategically placed scored sections, the essential impromptu feel of Morris’ conductions prevails on “Possible Universe.” Arguably, Silva is first among equals in setting this tone, if only because of his unaccompanied preamble, which combines quavering string timbres and an intriguing attempt at harmonic resolution that comes up purposefully short. It also sets up a fine solo by Bowie that builds upon Silva’s statement with carefully laced phrases and a reverent tone. Then, repeatedly throughout the piece, Silva slips in and out of the ensembles, giving each moment an additional layer of iridescent color. Morris also slyly embedded solos for Parker and Murray into the work, providing a rare opportunity to compare and contrast two of the day’s most iconic tenor players. Parker’s turn comes early in the piece; instead of using his patented multiphonics, Parker uses clearly articulated notes to slowly unveil a motive that draws from the opening section of “A Love Supreme.” Murray’s is at near boil, full of raspy phrases that vault into his reliably dramatic altissimo. Parker sidesteps his signatures, while Murray uses his in typically bold strokes; but, in both cases, their solos serve what the piece requires in those respective moments.

Incisive scored materials; the accommodation of distinctive improvisers; the sense that the music can go anywhere at any moment: these are attributes of Morris’s conductions, generally. With “Possible Universe,” they take on increased gravity by virtue of it being one of Morris’ last. However, this is no culminating statement, but the opening of a door.

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