Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris, inventor of musical conduction, dead at 65

Posted by Peter Margasak on Tue, Jan 29, 2013 at 7:19 PM

Lawrence D. Butch Morris
This morning great musical thinker Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris passed away at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the Fort Hamilton section of Brooklyn following a struggle with cancer. He was 65 years old. Though Morris started out as a cornetist—first in his native California, later in New York—he was known best for "conduction," a term he borrowed from physics to describe a way of organizing, shaping, and leading group improvisation. He developed an interest in doing so in 1971, after moving from Los Angeles to Oakland; he began working with jazz drummer Charles Moffett, who used a basic set of gestures to spontaneously alter the performance of a given piece. But it wasn't until 1976, when Morris arrived in New York and got involved with the loft-jazz scene, that his concept of conduction came together.

In his own words:

Conduction® (conducted Improvisation) is a means by which a conductor may compose, (re)orchestrate, (re)arrange and sculpt with notated and non-notated music. Using a vocabulary of signs and gestures, many within the general glossary of traditional conducting, the conductor may alter or initiate rhythm, melody, harmony, not to exclude the development of form/structure, both extended and common, and the instantaneous change in articulation, phrasing, and meter. Indefinite repeats of a phrase or measures may now be at the discretion of the new Composer on the Podium. Signs such as Memory may be utilized to recall a particular moment and Literal Movement is a gesture used as a real-time graphic notation. Conducting is no longer a mere method for an interpretation but a viable connection to the process of composition and the process itself. The act of Conduction is a vocabulary for the improvising ensemble. In the past fifty years the international community of improvisers has grown at such a rate that it has forged its own in defining its present future. The geographic exchange of musics (not category) has enriched this community and holds it steadfast in its mission to be the medium with an appetite for expressing the moment. It is this Collective Imagination that is presenting the new challenge to technology and tradition with the hope of helping in the humanitarian need to broaden the language of communication. Here and now we have the possibility of helping to open new doors of employment to a community that has patiently awaited its turn to pave the way to the New Tradition, a product equal to the challenge.

In his liner notes for 1995's remarkable ten-CD box set Testament: A Conduction Collection (New World), Morris writes about something this approach taught him early on, when he was working with musicians in Europe: "I realized how different the players were, their interpretation of material and their response to the gestural vocabulary. This again started my mind buzzing. This is not jazz, this is not classical—not free, it is what it is. Everyone can find their home in this music, everyone could interpret it any way they liked (within reason). The one thing that it does have, no matter where it's done, that makes it akin to jazz is combustion and ignition. To me this is the essence of swing."

It's difficult if not impossible to generalize about the way these performances sounded, since every one was different—depending on the musicians, the context, and the spontaneous direction Morris provided. I only saw one concert myself, for which Morris led a group of young players, many affiliated with Nublu Records owner Ilhan Ersahin, at the Jazz em Agosto Festival in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2009. The music wasn't as compelling as many of the recordings I've heard from Morris, but it was rewarding to watch him at work and see how his gestures functioned.

So-called nonidiomatic improvisation had by then calcified into its own idiom, leading certain factions of the free-jazz community into a cul-de-sac. I don't think Morris considered improvisation to be headed for a dead end when he developed conduction—he just wanted to reconcile his composer's mind-set with the ability to lead a group from the podium with improvisational freedom. But in the big picture, Morris anticipated that stagnation and provided one of the earliest solutions to it. Below is a ten-minute clip of 2009 performance in Sardinia, Italy.

Morris was always open-minded about who he worked with: he brought together free-jazz players, hard-core experimentalists, and traditional folk musicians, often combining folks from different parts of the world. He was interested in seeing what was possible. For me personally, however, Morris the cornetist exerted an even more profound influence. He plays beautifully on one of the very first jazz albums I ever bought: Murray's Steps by the David Murray Octet, which I picked up in high school. I spun that record today, probably for the first time in two decades, and I still remember by heart the way every extended solo develops. Plus, a series of recordings Morris made around the same time with keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and trombonist J.A. Deane opened a door on a kind of ambient drift I'd never heard—not new-age flotation-tank bullshit but beautiful, organically rippling improvised sound that feels like it was taped somewhere in the arctic.

On a trip to Istanbul in 2001, where Morris lived for several years starting in the late 90s, I had the privilege of sharing dinner with him and a couple of friends. He was totally charming and funny, but I still felt starstruck, sitting next to a guy who'd helped me love jazz. He'll be missed by many, many people in all kinds of ways.

Today's playlist:

7k Oaks, Entelechy (Die Schachtel)
Frank Hewitt, Salience (Smalls)
C Joynes, Congo (Bo' Weavil)
Aarón Zapico, Phantasia (Winter & Winter)
John Handy III, No Coast Jazz (Roulette, Japan)

Comments (6)

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He was my friend for many years. His spirit will be with me forever.
Chris

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Posted by Chris Pollok on 01/29/2013 at 9:43 PM

Butch was a great artist, an honorable, and beloved man. He conducts those low sparks of hi heeled boys and girls wherever he is tonite, Miss Magillacuddy!

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Posted by Caroline/"Modette" on 01/30/2013 at 7:56 AM

Lawrence is and always has been, and always will be a sweet spirit, moving through universes and time with the grace of an eagle.

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Posted by Tair on 01/30/2013 at 10:35 PM

Listening to WKCR playing 24 hours of Butch Morris.

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Posted by Rick on 01/31/2013 at 11:14 AM

The Montalvo Arts Center joins with other members of the musical community to mourn the passing of Butch Morris: a true creative innovator and former Artist-in-Residence, Sally and Don Lucas Artists Residency Program (LAP), 2009.

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Posted by MontalvoArts on 01/31/2013 at 4:59 PM

Butch was deep and true

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Posted by NanZee on 03/09/2013 at 3:02 PM
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