Butch Morris


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In Touch But Out Of Reach (Karma, 1978), 6/10
3+2=XXXX (Dimensional Sound Studio 1, 1983), 6/10
New York City Artist's Collective: Play Butch Morris (NYCAC, 1984), 6/10
Trios (Dossier, 1986), 5/10
Current Trends In Racism (Sound Aspects, 1986) 8/10
Homeing (Sound Aspects, 1988), 6.5/10
Mass-X-Communication (FMP, 1991), 6/10
Dust To Dust (New World, 1991), 7/10
When the Sun is Out You Don't See Stars (FMP, 1993), 5/10
Testament (New World, 1995), 7.5/10
Burning Clouds (FMP, 1996), 6.5/10
Berlin Skyscraper (FMP, 1998), 6.5/10
Conduction 70: Tit For Tat (For Four Ears, 1998), 6/10
Conduction 57/58/59: Holy Sea (Splasc, 2001), 6/10
Conduction 117 (Jump Arts, 2001), 6/10
The Rite (Burnt Sugar, 2003), 5/10
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Trumpet player Butch (Lawrence Douglas) Morris was perhaps the most revolutionary conductor of big bands of the post-swing era. An alumnus in Los Angeles of Horace Tapscott's Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, itself an outgrowth of the Underground Musicians' Association (UGMA), formed in 1961, Morris relocated to New York in 1976, and became a member of David Murray's band (1982-97). The aim of multimedia events such as the 47-minute Current Trends In Racism (february 1985) was to transform the performance of an orchestral work into an improvised duet between the conductor (Morris) and the orchestra (Frank Lowe on tenor sax, John Zorn on alto sax, Zeena Parkins on harp, Tom Cora on cello, Christian Marclay on turntables, and others on vibraphone, piano, guitar, percussion, voice). The conductor expressed himself through gestures and the orchestra expressed itself through sounds. Both contributed creatively to defining the result. Thus the concepts of improvisation, composition and performance get blurred to the point that the composer is an improviser, the improvisers are as much in charge as the conductor, etc. This album contained Conduction 1, where "conduction" means "conducted improvisation" (the conductor uses both signs and gestures to direct the development of the composition). The music was as "un-orchestral" as it could be. The instruments were basically playing against each other rather than together. There was little or no sense of synchronicity, harmony or coherence. The sheer amount of instruments made it virtually impossible to achieve any degree of organic improvisation. Morris' orchestra redefined counterpoint as a chaotic eruption of timbres, and Morris' counterpoint redefined the orchestra as a loose assembly of individual urges. The focus was in finding a balance between the conductor's stream of consciousness and the collective stream of consciousness of the players. That goal entailed developing a common vocabulary of musical blocks, and most of the piece was just that: the slow, painful development of a new language of piano clusters, guttural moans, sax squeals, etc.
The idea of conducting a big band of improvisors was further developed on Homeing (june 1987), for cornet, French horn, oboe, trombone, vibraphone, piano, violinist Jason Hwang, guitarist Pierre Dorge, electronic musician David Weinstein, vocalist Shelley Hirsch, bass and drums, and Dust To Dust (november 1990), that toyed with multiple aspects of musical presentation, scored for English horn, trombone, vibraphone, bassoon, oboe, clarinetist Marty Ehrlich, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, violinist Jason Hwang, pianist Myra Melford, harpist Zeena Parkins, guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly and drummer Andrew Cyrille (no Morris and no bass).
The music of these "conductions" borrowed freely from the classical avantgarde, free-jazz, ethnic music, Brian Eno's ambient music.
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Il trombettista californiano Butch (Lawrence Douglas) Morris (nato a Los Angeles nel 1947, laureatosi in composizione a Oakland) si trasferi' a New York nel 1976. Formatosi nei complessi di David Murray, Frank Lowe e Billy Bang (con i quali incise parecchi dischi), si mise in luce per un senso della melodia quasi pop e per le solide radici nella tradizione jazz.

I primi tre dischi occultarono in effetti quella che stava emergendo come una delle personalita' piu' dirompenti e messianiche del movimento d'avanguardia di Manhattan. Morris si stava infatti dedicando soprattutto ad allestire e orchestrare eventi multimediali come Goya, The Hunchback, Popeye, Modette, Images Of The None e soprattutto Current Trends In Racism In Modern America (l'unico ad essere inciso su disco, e il primo "conduction"), spettacoli radicali tenuti in posti come il Museum Of Modern Art, il Kitchen, il Painted Bride.

The aim of Current Trends In Racism (Sound Aspects, 1986) is to transform the performance of an orchestral work into an improvised duet between the conductor (Morris) and the orchestra (Frank Lowe on tenor sax, John Zorn on alto sax, Zeena Parkins on harp, Tom Cora on cello, Christian Marclay on turntables, Eli Fountain on vibraphone, and others on piano, guitar, percussion, voice). The conductor expresses himself through gestures and the orchestra expresses itself through sounds. Both contribute creatively to defining the result. The concepts of improvisation, composition and performance get blurred to the point that the composer is an improviser, the improvisers are as much in charge as the conductor, etc. This album contains Conduction 1, where "conduction" means "conducted improvisation" (the conductor uses both signs and gestures to direct the development of the composition). The music is as "un-orchestral" as it could be. The instruments are basically playing against each other rather than together. There is little or no sense of synchronicity, harmony or coherence. The sheer amount of instruments makes it virtually impossible to achieve any degree of organic improvisation. Morris' orchestra redefines counterpoint as a chaotic eruption of timbres, and Morris' counterpoint redefines the orchestra as a loose assembly of individual urges. The focus is in finding a balance between the conductor's stream of consciousness and the collective stream of consciousness of the players. That goal entails developing a common vocabulary of musical blocks, and most of the piece is just that: the slow, painful development of a new language of piano clusters, guttural moans, sax squeals, etc. Current Trends In Racism (Sound Aspects, 1986) e' un tentativo di intendere l'esecuzione di un lavoro orchestrale come un duetto improvvisato fra il direttore e l'orchestra: l'uno si esprime a gesti e l'altra a suoni, ma entrambi contribuiscono in maniera attiva a definire il suono finale. Alla prima l'orchestra comprendeva musicisti del calibro di Lowe, Zorn, Marclay, Parkins, Cora. Come John Zorn, anche Morris rimette in discussione i concetti di improvvisazione, composizione e performance, ma con in piu' una dote innata per la melodia.
Morris debuted as an improviser with a live album by a sextet, In Touch But Out Of Reach (december 1978 - Karma, 1978), that contained three tracks, including two lengthy meditations: Narobia (17:48) and Lovers Existing On The Dunes (19:55). Some Order, Long Understood (february 1982 - Black Saint, 1983) contained two Horvitz compositions (the title-track and Psalm) improvised by Wayne Horvitz on piano, Morris on cornet and William Parker on bass.

3+2=XXXX (may 1984 - Dimensional Sound Studio, 1983) was scored for a quintet (saxophone, guitar, bass, drums and and Morris on cornet) and contained only two lengthy jams:` We Met Butch And Frank In Town and Our Sound Unity.

New York City Artist's Collective (november 1982 - NYCAC 503, 1984) was his first attempt at "conducting" a big band of improvisers, although here the ensemble is only piano, vocals, saxophone, guitar, synthesizer, bass and drums. They perform four of his compositions: the ten-minute Beyond, the eight-minute Alexandre at 2, Music for the Love of It, The Current and the Feather.

Trios (recorded in 1985 - Dossier, 1986) was free improvisation with guitarist Bill Horvitz and trombonist J.A. Deane. Nine Below Zero (january 1986 - Sound Aspects, 1987) was a trio with pianist Wayne Horvitz and drummer Robert Previte,

Current Trends In Racism (Sound Aspects, 1986) was a three-movement multimedia work performed by a stellar cast (Frank Lowe on tenor, John Zorn on alto saxophone, Zeena Parkins on harp, Tom Cora on cello, Christian Marclay on turntables, Eli Fountain on vibraphone, Curtis Clark on piano, etc).

Morris inaugurated in earnest his career as a big-band conductor with a concert documented on Live at "Sweet Basil", Vol 1 (august 1984 - Black Saint, 1986), when he conducted an ensemble consisting of Olu Dara on cornet, Baikida Carroll on trumpet, Craig Harris on trombone, Bob Stewart on tuba, Vincent Chancey on French horn, Steve Coleman on saxophones, John Purcell on saxophone and clarinet, Rod Williams on piano, Fred Hopkins on bass, and Billy Higgins on percussion, through four of David Murray's compositions: Lovers (8:20), Bechet's Bounce (12:05), Silence (5:55), Duet For Big Band (16:10). Volume 2 documented four more Murray compositions and one Morris composition.

Homeing (november 1987 - Sound Aspects, 1988) was an-eight-movement suite scored for cornet, trombone, electronics, French horn, oboe, vocals (Shelley Hirsch), violin, guitar, vibraphone, piano, bass and drums.

Two colossal live performances with Deane, Shelley Hirsch, violinist Jason Hwang, reed player Hans Koch, guitarist Hans Reichel, cellist Martin Schutz, drummer Paul Lovens are collected on Mass-X-Communication (december 1990 - FMP, 1991).

But Morris (who was still playing in Murray's band) was more attracted by the concept of the big band and crafted another spectacular exaample of conducted improvisations: Dust To Dust (november 1990 - World, 1991). The eight-minute Othello B not only expands on the technique itself of conducting improvisors and consolidates the cohesiveness of the ensemble playing, but it boasts a melodic element. This is the real protagonist now, emerging and disappearing from the mist of free-form chords and chaotic counterpoint. The second version, Othello A, spreads the melodic burder equally across the ensemble with grace and psychological ingenuity. The 12-minute Via Talciona is also based on a simple melody, a melancholy theme that fluctuates between English horn and bassoon. Piano, harp, violin and vibraphone take care of the chromatic aspect. The conduction mixes the two to the point that the melody becomes fragmented and scattered, while the colored background assumes the role of a melody. The ten-minute Long Goodbye, an excerpt from Trail of Tears (1988), is a more confused take on the same concept.
The Bartok Comprovisation sounds like minimalist repetition, because initially the instruments enter one at the time, each repeating a pattern, but soon the patterns cancel out each other. Only the last two thirds of Dust To Dust (1989) are included, and they do seem to miss something. The piece sounds direction-less from the very beginning.
In Food Chain Dialogue, the most dislocated and dissonant conduction, the ensemble "plays" the very recording techniques that produce the piece.

When the Sun is Out You Don't See Stars (july 1991 - FMP, 1993) was, instead, a quartet of Morris on cornet, bassist Peter Kowald, saxophonist Werner Ludi, and vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak, performing 20 "songs".

As his experiments in big-band conducting became more sophisticated, Morris engaged himself in the series of "conduction" compositions (where "conduction" stands for a form of conducting that expands the traditional conducting tools by instructing visually the performers about rhythm, harmony, melody, etc): Testament (New World, 1995) collects a few of them, each one scored for wildly different ensembles: Conduction #11/ Where Music Goes (december 1988) for the Rova Saxophone Quartet, electronics, piano, trombone, guitar, cello, violin, bass and percussion; Conduction #15/ Where Music Goes II (november 1989) for alto saxophone (Arthur Blythe), violin (Hwang), harp (Zeena Parkins), flute, vibraphone, French horn, piano, trombone, bassoon, guitars and percussion; Conduction #22 (june 1992) for turntablist Christian Marclay, percussionist Le Quan Ninh, electronic musician rGunter Muller, trombone and cello; Conduction #23/ Quinzaine de Montreal (april 1992) for violin, five cellos, trombone, piano, vibraphone and bass (and no percussion); Conduction #25/ The Akbank Conduction (october 1992) and Conduction #26/ Akbank II (october 1992), both for a Turkish ensemble (kemence, oud, kanun, ney) plus percussionist Le Quean Ninh, vibraphone, trombone, harp, guitar, piano and trumpet; Conduction #28/ Cherry Blossom (march 1993) for a Japanese ensemble of traditional instruments (nokan, ohtsuzumi, shomyo, tugaru syamisen, shakuhachi) plus violin, piano, clarinet, computer, vocals, turntablist Yoshihide Otomo, bass and percussion, with Butoh dancers; Conduction #31 (may 1993) for soprano saxophone, trombone, piano (Steve Beresford), guitar (Hans Reichel), cello (Tom Cora), vocals (Catherine Jauniaux), bass (Peter Kowald), percussion (Han Bennink) and drum machines (Ikue Mori); Conduction #35/ American Connection 4 (may 1993) and Conduction #36/ American Connection 4 (may 1993) for flute, clarinet, guitar, violin, piano, trombone, vocals, bass (Maarten Altena) and drums; Conduction #38/ In Freud's Garden (december 1993) for three cellos, viola, clarinets, saxophones, pianist Myra Melford, harpist Zeena Parkins, vibraphone, guitar, trombone, bass and percussionist Le Quan Ninh: percussion; Conduction #39 (november 1993) and Conduction #40 (november 1993) for turntablist Christian Marclay, guitarist Elliott Sharp, three violins, two cellos, harp, vibraphone, piano (Melford), three bassists (William Parker, Mark Helias and Fred Hopkins); Conduction #41/ New World (february 1994) for two clarinets, two saxophones, two trombones, shakuhachi, guitar and vocals; Conduction #50 (march 1995) for Japanese instruments (otuzumi, koto, gidayu, zheng, tugaru syamisen), piano, violin, percussion, turntablist Yoshihide Otomo, vocals and two basses.
Morris thus became a sculptor of music (not just of sound), capable of determining through gestures the evolution of a musical piece. He found a solution to the "third stream" dilemma: how to make improvised and orchestral music coexist.

Morris kept alternating "conductions" with more conventional recordings: the three-movement Burning Clouds (october 1993 - FMP, 1996) was improvised by a trio of Morris (cornet), percussionist Le Quan Ninh and Deane on trombone, flute, electronics.

More works for large ensemble followed: the double-disc Conduction No 43: The Cloth (june 1994)/Conduction No 46: Verona Skyscraper (june 1995), the former featuring pianist Myra Melford and the latter devoted to an Italian orchestra; the double-disc Berlin Skyscraper (november 1995 - FMP, 1998), containing Conduction #51, #52, #55, #56 for a 17-piece ensemble (piano, bassoon, oboe, cello, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, flute, vibraphone, guitar, three violins, harp, trombone, bass and two percussionists); Conduction #70/ Tit For Tat (september 1996 - For Four Ears, 1998) for turntable, electronics, noise sculptors Voice Crack (Norbert Moeslang and Andy Guhl), electronic musician Gunter Muller, clarinet, violin, cello, violin, guitar, vocals and drums; Holy Sea (Splasc, 2001), containing Conduction #57, #58, #59 (february 1996) for turntablist Otomo Yoshihide, sampling, drum-machine, electronics, piano and an Italian orchestra (four violins, three violas, two cellos, contrabass, flute bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, harp, timpani, percussion); and the four-section Conduction 117 (Jump Arts, 2001), credited to the Jump Arts Orchestra, an orchestra of 24 improvisers drawn from rock, classical, jazz and ethnic music (two trumpets, two trombones, French horn, tuba, flute, four clarinets, bassoon, three saxophones, piano, two violas, two cellos, two basses, two percussionists).

Conduction #130/ Bertolt was scored again for the Jump Arts Orchestra.

The Rite (Burnt Sugar, 2003) is Butch Morris' adaptation of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite Of Spring".

For the 20th anniversary of conduction, Morris spent the entire month of february 2005 conducting different ensembles (a grand total of more than 100 musicians).

Conductions #143/1 & #143/2 (november 2004) were performed by the Ensemble Laboratorio Novamusica Cecilia Vendrasco (flute, trumpet, trombone, viola, drums, double bass, piano, harpsichord). The latter added a quartet of bass clarinets.

Conduction/ Induction (2007) documents two live performances: Conduction #135 - Sheng Skyscraper (september 2003) for a multi-ethnic elelectroacoustic orchestra with no horns (violin, cello, vibraphone, bass, guitar, drums, tese, balafon, kora, dizi, erhu, guzheng, oud, sampling machine, drum machine, electronic keyboards) and Induction #2/1 - Emyoueseyesee.it (may 2006) for a jazz big band augmented (saxophones, flute, oboe, trumpet, violin, cello, basses, guitars, vibraphone, percussion) with electronic and digital devices.

Morris conducted David Murray (tenor sax & bass clarinet), Evan Parker (tenor sax), Pasquale Innarella and Greg Ward (alto sax), Josef Bowie and Tony Cattano (trombone), Meg Montgomery (electro trumpet), Riccardo Pitta (trumpet), Jean-Paul Bourelly and Ka'a Davis (guitar), Harrison Bankhead and Silvia Bolognesi (double bass), Chad Taylor (drums & vibraphone), Hamid Drake (percussion) and Alan Silva (synth) on Conduction 192 - Possible Universe (composed in 2010, premiered in 2012).

Butch Morris died of lung cancer in january 2013 at the age of 66.

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