Although Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris first came on the scene as a free-improv cornetist (most notably in groups led by David Murray), he has been best known since the early '80s for his "conductions," a way of leading an ensemble through a piece built on their own improvisations (the term itself as a combination of the words "conduct" and "improvisation").
|Butch Morris [Photo by Dominik Huber]|
A conduction will generally begin with one player stating a phrase and Morris cueing the rest of the group to respond to that phrase, or to a section of it. Over the course of 30 or 40 minutes, Morris will build that original statement into an extended piece with themes (that the ensemble remembers and returns to), flourishes and contrasting sections. One of the most notable things about a Morris conduction, beyond the music itself, is the intense focus the players keep on him. This is not free jazz. Morris is very much a bandleader, a real-time composer and arranger building music in the moment.
He kindly consented to respond to questions emailed in by Squid's Ear readers.
E: What can you tell us about the trio you had with Wayne Horvitz & Bobby Previte? It seemed to open a new direction in utilizing electronics and small-group dynamics.
A: There were two bands that preceded this trio that (I think) had a direct impact on its success. The first was Bill Horvitz, J.A. Deane and myself; the other was Wayne, Dino and I. Horvitz/Morris/Previte was an exciting playing situation because Wayne and Robin Holcomb wrote such wonderful music and Wayne played and programmed great DX7 and drum machine. Bobby has a great ear for melody and rhythm (and harmony). I think we found a unique way to distribute density in space while still using the 'song' format to frame our improvisations.
E: Please describe how you came to develop conduction. Was the a "first appearance"? How did it relate to an event like the 1982 New York City Artist's Collective performance of your work - how developed was the technique at this point?
A: Although I had been working out the idea of Conduction from the mid 70s, it was not until 1985, after Conduction No. 1, that this work rose from infancy. At the time of Cond. No. 1 there were only five directives in place, and although we put them to good use, time dictated 'more'. The evolution of Conduction comes directly from my discontent with the development and direction of improvisation in large ensemble interplay.
E: The first date in most discographies of your work is listed as a Frank Lowe quartet date for the French Palm label, The Other Side. Was this the first? What can you tell us about this date?
A: Jef Gilson was/is a wonderful host (arranger, composer and producer). The first.
E: Your first date as a leader is listed as "In Touch...But Out of Reach" for Kharma. What can you tell us about this date?
A: A big headache.
E: "Queen of Spades" -- my favorite Butch Morris tune, was a feature of Jemeel Moondoc's Jus Grew Orchestra in the 80s. What is this piece's history? It doesn't appear as though you ever recorded it. Did you? Did anyone else?
A: I wrote 'Queen of Spades' in 1974 in California and I never performed it with any other ensemble, it seemed to work well with Jus Grew. I have never recorded it and to my knowledge, no one has. It was inspired by a song called "Ti Forest," by Walter Savage who was a bass player with Horace Tapscott and Taj Mahal.
E: Discuss the following artists, thoughts/recollections/impact on work/&c.:
A: Each deserves a chapter if not a book:
David Murray I've known David since 1973...he's a truly generous man. There are two wonderful memories I have of David, the first; fishing under the Oakland Bay Bridge plotting history, and the other: He called me from Rome (I was in Rotterdam) the eve of my thirtieth birthday and said I'm going to fly up tomorrow and we are going to celebrate your birthday, day and night.....and we did, then I put him on plane at 10 am.
Frank Lowe David and Frank brought me to New York. We have a great chemistry together. On any given night Frank Lowe could go from 1935 to 1999 in two breaths and scare all the saxophone players out of the room, ask Stan Getz or Archie Shepp.
Johnny Dyani A master storyteller, natural bassist, great friend and teacher.
William Parker Is doing great work.
Jessica Hagedorn A gumbo girl, first born into the elite family of spoken word poetry and 'shameless hussy-ness.'
A.R. Penck Mr. TTT, a savior to many musicians. An artist with the greatest work ethic I've ever seen. A kind and generous man who taught and showed me many things about the art world.
H/M/D This was the trio that set the stage for how I would play the horn from then until I stopped playing. Bill and Dino were great together, and playing acoustic inside all that electronics was a big eye-opener to me. It changed the way I thought, composed and played.
Peter Kowald The king of Wuppertal. Free to be.
Christian Marclay A great friend who's work decodes history with futuristic vision. He is always a joy to work with.
E:You took part in a pre-internet worldwide performance, "Telefonia," linking up performance spaces in Switzerland and New York via satellite. What did you think of this event?
A: This was a wonderful project between Winterthur and New York that predates web-based interactive projects as we know them today. And thanks not only to the great vision of Andres Bosshard, the musicians and technicians, but also to whoever was at Pro Helvetia and Cassinelli-Vogel-Stiffung who saw this vision through. As was said: Telefonia is a histerical homage to Switzerland. (the politicians are talking....)
E: Have artists outside of music approached you about applying ideas and techniques of conduction in non or extra-musical fields? I'm thinking specifically of theater, group collage work or other "plastic" arts where ensemble improvisation is possible.
A: Many choreographers have approached me to talk about the possibilities of conduction in dance but nothing has come of it yet. Christoph Marthaler is the only theatre director who has expressed an interest.
E: On your conduction techniques, do you have a set of signals that you and the band have worked out in rehearsals? Or is this all done more on-the-fly, on-the-spot.
A: There are (approximately) 26 directives in the Conduction vocabulary and much more information to be understood fully by the ensemble. Because of workshop/rehearsal limitations, there has never been enough time to work all of this information out with one ensemble. I always ask for five or more days and settle for three or four, however there have been situations where I have done performances with only an hour or two of preparation but this is by no means idealand I generally steer clear ......
E: I once read in an interview that youwere looking for a residency. Since playing regularly at the Bowery Poetry Club, how has this helped strengthen your band? What elements of your conduction or your repertoire are you seeking to grow with a residency?
A: .............Understanding! The better anyone understands anything, the more liberated they are to find freedom in all situations. To date, Berlin Skyscraper (FMP) is the most time I've spent with any ensemble and we experienced 'growth' through understanding throughout ten days of rehearsal and nine performances.
E: You led a great group called 'Holy Ghost' several years ago at the 'What is Jazz' festival. It seemed to be a conduction using scored materials. How did that project work, and will you do anything with it again?
A: We had no scored material for this Conduction (No. 103). I would love to resurrect this ensemble again...........
E: I had heard at one time you were going to stop doing conductions with Number 100 at the Vision Festival a few years back. Why did you decide to keep doing them? Are you looking at ending them or beginning another project?
A:My plan (at the time) was to end the Conduction series and begin a new series dedicated to composition and conduction but I decided to let the two overlap.
E: Please explain a little how you structured the Stravinsky 'Rite of Spring' piece you did with Burnt Sugar last year at Summerstage. Do you plan to build other conductions (or have you in the past) from other composers materials?
A: My work with conduction 'started' for the deconstruction of notation. My early collaborations with David Murray, Billy Bang, Jemeel Moondoc, Misha Mengleberg and a host of otherswere with notation. I have, more recently begun to utilize notation (again) in performance for the purpose of deconstruction (and re-construction). The 'Rites' project was broughtto me by Greg Tate for a collaboration he has with choreographer Gabri Christa. I expect we will continue to evolve this work
E: One of my favorite conductions I've seen you do was sadly marred by horrible sound: the Charlie Parker festival piece that featured Arthur Blythe, Christian Marclay and 18 or so flutes. Have you thought of trying to do that piece again under better circumstances? It was a great concept, shamefully wounded by the p.a.
A: Yes, this was "Conduction No.44, Ornithology," 28 August 1994 at Tompkins Square Park. I would love to re-work this piece again...would you like to be the Executive Producer?
E: Wilber [Morris, Butch's cousin] mentioned to me once that he played a lot with Charles Tyler on the west coast. Was this a group that you were in as well? Also,did you play his legendary pieces like "Voyage From Jericho" etc.?
A: Yes we both were in the band of Charles Tyler and we played all of his classics. My favorite was "Sad Folks."
E: Why conduction? What so you get out of working with conducting improvisors that you wouldn't from watching or participating in an unguided improv? What differentiates conduction in your mind from some of the other improv "schools" -- the John Stevens / SME approach, the AMM approach, Zorn game pieces -- obviously, the presence of the conductor is a difference, but what about the results is different? What qualities do you try to emphasize in a conduction, and what could someone else do with it?
A: As I have stated in the Artist Statement, Conduction is not exclusive to improvisers, nor the sole notion of improvisation! (see Holy Sea) Your "schools" have given me many splendid hours of listening/enjoyment, and as a player I have committed and contributed in one way or another. But I must say, I have different requirements, scales of evaluation and goals......... therefore, different results. 'Schools' cannot satisfy all of my needs as a musician, (as my needs do not satisfy (all) the needs of others) however they do serve as great tools for listening and study......and I suggest the same.
As for what others could do with it......ask them..... there are hundreds.
E: How come you don't play no more?
A: More than anything I am consumed by the idea of 'making music'. I look forward to playing cornet again, someday.
E: Why not do a solo cornet recording?
A: This is a great idea!
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