Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Butch Morris, Superconductor, 1947-2013

Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, who passed away this week, was a true American original, a musical artist of singular genius and originality whom I’m confident posterity will speak of in the same breath as Charles Ives, John Cage and Duke Ellington, even if he’s far from a household name today. Butch came out of the jazz tradition, but by the time his work here was done he had gone way beyond the boundaries of genre.

Butch started out as a brass player, a cornetist, but his real legacy is the work he did in a form of his own devising, Conduction, which grew out of an ever-searching musical vision. He came to New York in the mid-1970s from Southern California, along with a number of other musicians who were welcomed into the vibrant jazz loft scene: David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Butch’s brother Wilber, a brilliant bassist (and another Morris who left us too early), and a then unknown drummer and writer named Stanley Crouch (they knew him before he was a Neanderthal). Butch was one of the first of the musicians from the loft world to start collaborating with some of the younger musicians working within a new, eclectic “downtown” music vocabulary, among them John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz and Bobby Previte. Around the same time a new kind of music started welling up inside his head, and he studied conducting in order to realize what he was imagining. Over time, Butch’s conduction concept gelled, first with musicians from familiar circles, but eventually the entire world became his musical oyster.

The simplest description of Butch’s Conduction is structured improvisation. He developed a series of gestures, a language of Conduction, that would be used in rehearsals and performance to create new and unpredictable music with various groups of improvising musicians from many traditions. Collaborative composition in real time. The phrase may be cliché, but it was always a musical tightrope walk, and truly, to use another near-cliché of the jazz world, “the sound of surprise.”

Part of the joy of watching a Butch Morris conduction, besides his hand gestures and, of course, the musicians, was watching Butch’s face. I don’t know if the facial expressions were part of the language of Conduction, but they could certainly be meaningful. Most of the time, as I remember, the expression was one of focus, but on occasion the scowl would show itself, and what a formidable scowl it was. But the scowl, aimed at one musician or another, didn’t mean, “You fucked up,” it didn’t mean, “You’re screwing up my music,” it meant, I’m pretty sure, “My friend, you’re letting yourself down.” Because Butch always set the highest standards for himself and for all the musicians he worked with. He was a teacher, in the rehearsal room and on the bandstand, in the great jazz tradition of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. And then there was the smile, that big, beaming mother of all smiles that would suddenly appear on the Morris visage, a smile that maybe meant something like a combination of: “I’m pleased,” “This is all coming together,” “I’m proud of you,” “Thank you,” and, no doubt, “I love you.”

Musicians from the jazz world and other improvising traditions cherished the opportunity to work with Butch, but once he started getting commissions there could sometimes be friction and resistance. My favorite story in this vein involves a performance that I believe became the double-CD set “Holy Sea,” with the Orchestra della Toscana. I don’t have access to the source now (liner notes? interview?), but as I remember it, Butch told a story of resistance and triumph. He had received a commission to work with this Italian chamber orchestra, and these classically trained musicians for whom improvisation was an alien concept were not happy campers at first. They goofed off, showed up late for rehearsals, flaunted their disdain and generally kept their hearts out of the project. How did Butch react? He took the musicians aside and said something like: If you guys sound like shit, it’s your problem, not mine. I’m just a visitor here. When I leave here and move on to my next project, this will be behind me, but you live here, you’ll have to face this audience again, so what shall it be? It worked. The musicians shaped up, fell in love with the process, all the acrimony dissolved, and it turned out to be one of Butch’s most successful Conductions. Boy do I love that story.

I knew Butch Morris, casually, for just over 30 years. We met on January 25, 1982. I was producing and hosting a show at Symphony Space called “A Benefit for Nothing,” which was a benefit for the “Nothing Issue” of my magazine, Zone. Butch was supposed to do something with writer Jessica Hagedorn, as the two had recorded a piece for the first “State of the Union” LP, a collaboration between Zone and Elliott Sharp’s Zoar record label. But Jessica had to be in Manila for a funeral, so Butch did a solo cornet performance. This was pre-Conduction. I’d often run into him in the East Village, our mutual neighborhood until I moved in 1987, and we’d exchange quick hellos usually, usually accompanied by the abundant Butch Morris smile. Same quick hellos and smiles when I’d check-in with him after a Conduction. I once ran into him, somewhat incongruously, at an early Norah Jones show. About six years ago Butch participated in a panel that I hosted at NYU’s Fales Library as a tie-in to a research guide and mini-history of downtown music that I had written for the library. Butch accepted my invitation without hesitation, and the only obstacle was finding a date when both Butch and Elliott Sharp would be in the U.S. at the same time. I’m pretty sure the last time I saw him was at a screening at the Bowery Poetry Club of Vipal Monga’s excellent documentary about Butch and Conduction, “Black February.” Afterwards I went up to Butch and said, “Butch Morris, star of stage and screen.” His reply? “Oh, come on!”

Photo: Claudio Casanova