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Artist Profiles

Butch Morris

By Published: October 28, 2003

The term conductor/composer does not begin to adequately describe Morris' role in most of the music he creates.

A solitary Butch Morris took the stage Saturday, July 5th at Tonic to perform a tribute to music aficionado Irving Stone at a memorial concert featuring some of the greatest players of New York's downtown music community. Taking a seat center stage, the bearded, bespectacled Morris reached into a shopping bag, appearing more like a philosophy professor searching for material to teach a class than a musician looking for the instruments on which he was going to perform. Dramatically he pulled out the old cornet few had seen him play in years and a tiny contraption most had never seen at all. After winding up the latter (the mechanical works of a music box), he set it before the microphone and the room was treated to the sweet, ethereal sound of his beautiful composition "Nowhere Ever After", a song that could easily be the soundtrack to a fairy tale. He then not so much played the cornet as used the horn to create complementary and contrasting music, sounding at different times like a pygmy choir, percussion ensemble, aquatic cantor and space cyborg. Following an appreciative audience's ovation Morris presented Stone’s widow Stephanie (who had specifically requested that Butch bring out his cornet) with the music box, displaying the generous spirit that has made him one of the New York avant-garde's most beloved figures.

Lawrence Douglas "Butch" Morris was born in Long Beach, California on February 10, 1947. Butch grew up in a musical family and his older brother, the late bassist Wilber Morris, fueled his interest in jazz at a young age. He began playing trumpet and studying composition, harmony and theory in public school, where saxophonist Charles Lloyd was one of his teachers. He also performed in the school marching band. After graduation he studied with a number of notable West Coast musicians and often sat in with tenor saxophonist J.R. Monterose and former Clifford Brown-Max Roach bassist George Morrow. Following a stint in the army, including a tour of duty as a medic in Vietnam, Morris returned home and became entrenched in the "New Jazz" movement, studying with Bobby Bradford and Horace Tapscott and performing in the latter's band with like-minded musicians including John Carter, Mark Dresser, Diamanda Galas, David Murray and James Newton. He found further inspiration when he moved to the Bay Area and became part of an exemplary jazz community that included Ray Anderson, Curtis Clark, Frank Lowe, Charles Tyler and, perhaps most importantly, former Ornette Coleman drummer Charles Moffett who Butch credits with piquing his early interest in the process he calls conduction.

Morris moved to New York in 1976, but spent much of the next half decade living and teaching in Paris and the south of France while teaching in Belgium and Holland. He returned to New York in 1981 and began performing regularly with his own ensembles and those of Billy Bang, Lowe and Murray. It was specifically in Murray's groups, particularly his Octet, that Butch's considerable talents as a composer and arranger began to receive widespread notice. When the tenor saxophonist expanded his group to a big band, the cornetist put aside his horn and began to devote himself almost exclusively to the task of conducting. It is in the role of conductor/ composer that Butch Morris is best known today. Since his tenure with Murray he has conducted many of his own ensembles as well as those of other leaders to critical acclaim all over the world, including legendary engagements at Sweet Basil, the Village Vanguard, the Knitting Factory and the Bowery Poetry Club, here in New York.

The term conductor/composer does not begin to adequately describe Morris' role in most of the music he creates. As the director of conductions, the term conductioneer is perhaps more appropriate. To quote his website, "Conduction (conducted interpretation/ improvisation) is a vocabulary of ideographic signs and gestures activated to modify or construct a real-time musical arrangement or composition. Each sign and gesture transmits generative information for interpretation and provides instantaneous possibilities for altering or initiating harmony, melody, rhythm, articulation, phrasing or form." Morris began his conductions utilizing no more than five signs. Over the years the vocabulary has grown to approximately twenty-six signs, allowing him to increase the possibilities and potential of music. Much of the conduction vocabulary directs common musical components or operations, e.g. sustain, downbeat, repeat, dynamics, tempo, rhythm or change in tonality. Others are more idiosyncratic, dealing with concepts that are specifically related to the conduction process, such as memory, panorama, pedal, pedestrian and literal movement. These signs and gestures which Morris directs at individual musicians, the entire ensemble or to sections thereof, using hand signals, a baton and eye contact are described and defined in detail in the liner notes to Testament (a 10 CD box set documenting as many conductions), but their utility and import cannot be fully comprehended until they are seen (heard) in action.

The rehearsal process is an integral part of each conduction. Morris repeatedly goes over the signs and gestures with members of the ensemble, both familiarizing them with the vocabulary and imparting an intuitive sense of the spontaneous creativity the process attempts to inspire. Several weeks after the Stone Memorial, Butch returned to Tonic for an all trumpet conduction project curated by Dave Douglas, attempting the difficult task of acquainting 15 mostly unfamiliar musicians with the rigors of the process in a single one hour rehearsal preceding the evening's performance. The players had all received an email detailing the signs and gestures prior to the rehearsal and professed different levels of understanding. Morris explains that they will only utilize six or seven of the signs that day and begins running them down. There are questions from some of the trumpeters and some admonitions from Morris, but soon he is somewhat satisfied with most of the group's grasp of the material and begins the creative process. He tells the ensemble, "Have fun. Take a chance, challenge yourselves." The music they play pleases him. Later, he seems less content with the public performance despite the standing room audience's raucous approval.

The trumpet conduction (No. 134) differed from most others in that Morris chose neither the instrumentation nor the players. Typically a conduction begins with a sound that Morris hears in his head. Next he decides on the instrumentation he needs to get that sound. Then he selects the members of the ensemble based on the musicians' ability to go in the direction in which he wants to lead them. His next major conductions are at Joe’s Pub and the Bowery Poetry Club (BPC) and will definitely sound very different than the trumpet conduction, which was tonally limited by the nature of its instrumentation and improvisationally restricted by the inexperience of the performers with the process. The upcoming BPC Sheng/Skyscraper performances will utilize a wide variety of instruments, played by musicians who are already familiar with conduction, including Morris' long time collaborator J.A. Deane, whom he credits with exhibiting a rare humaneness in his use of sampling and electronics. The ensemble’s sound will be defined by its daring juxtaposition of seemingly disparate instruments (electric and acoustic, stringed and percussive, Western and Eastern), including guitar (Brandon Ross), bass guitar (Jesse Murphy), keyboards and drum machine (Shahzad Ismaily); trap set (Tyshawn Sorey), vibes (Matt Moran), and balafon (Abou Sylla); violin (Jason Kao Hwang), cello (Okkyung Lee), oud (Thomas E. Chess), kora (Balla Tounkara), di zi (Shu-ni Tsou), erhu (Guowei Wang), guzheng (Junling Wang) and Cooper-Moore’s teze, a harp-like instrument which Morris calls “home made thunder”. Where the music goes will be determined by the collective creativity of the fifteen players. And the incredible visionary imagination of one Lawrence “Butch” Morris.


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