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Jazz Notes: Butch Morris's creative explosion

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"You know, you go out and buy five or six or ten pairs of shoes, and one day you wear this pair, the next day a different pair. But they all look like you. They all fit. They're all part of your personality. Hats, sweaters, pants, the same way. . . . When I get into something else, I'm just changing a pair of shoes. And I love shoes."

Above, Butch Morris explains his music.

Morris, at the age of 40, is in the midst of a creative explosion. For the last few years, his music has encompassed new pieces and new techniques for large ensembles, small-group improvisations, solo cornet recitals. "I see all my activities working together, basically," he told down beat magazine last year, "but it takes a while." (And he really does love shoes; reportedly he used to hang around his hometown Los Angeles wearing "genie" shoes that curled up at the toes.)

So to start with the thing that Butch Morris will not do this weekend in Chicago: conductions. Conduction is a musical neologism for the wedding of two venerable musical concepts. The first, conducting, describes the act of a leader controlling the interlocking parts of a previously notated composition; the second, improvisation, involves the spontaneous development of musical ideas within a far more flexible format. The two concepts would appear to be, if not natural enemies, at least strange allies, with improvisation threatening the conductor's hegemony while chafing under the conductor's baton.

But Butch Morris brings the two together, serving as conductor, spontaneous composer, and sparring partner with his fellow performers. He conducts improvised works for ensembles of varying size, and does so with an agenda that recalls Ellington's admission that although he played the piano, the orchestra was his real instrument. "A conduction is a conducted improvisation," Morris wrote on the liner of a remarkable recording, Current Trends in Racism in America (Sound Aspects Records). "In essence, it is an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor."

That concept should fascinate, for in the right hands it allows the heady thrill of true group improvisation--music of the actual moment--with a steadying hand preventing anarchy. The concept has distinctly traceable roots. Ellington occasionally expanded an orchestration on the spot to accommodate a particularly fiery solo; one of his musical progeny, the late Thad Jones, frequently created hurriedly whispered riffs and rhythmic patterns for sections of his band, recalling a practice of the rough-and-tumble bands led in the 30s by Count Basie, who also employed Jones.

Butch Morris has revived the concept, but that's only part of the story. He has also heard Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman, the Art Ensemble and LA's Horace Tapscott, and as a result he executes the concept on another plane entirely, whether in leading completely improvised works of his own or in conducting bands led by reedman David Murray and saxist Jemeel Moondoc. Morris has transformed the concept of improvised orchestration from an arrangemental embellishment to the compositional core of his music. In so doing he's had to develop a new physical vocabulary for the conductor, by which he can, among other things, designate an improvised segment for recall by the musicians later, or delineate the desired length of the phrase under construction.

But since Morris, in his Chicago visit, will not conduct handpicked ensembles, nor engage in the electronically-based trio compositions that make up his latest album, Nine Below Zero, with keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and drummer Bobby Previte, none of the above would seem to have much direct impact on this weekend's activities. Or does it? The question really comes down to: How can a musician steep himself in such matters as guided improvisation and spontaneous composition without these concerns affecting his work as an instrumentalist?

The answer, of course, is he can't.

Morris appears this weekend as an improvising cornetist. He no longer plays trumpet or flugelhorn; the smaller, sweeter, but less purely powerful cornet holds his attention. Simply stated, he hears it better. "The cornet is interesting to me because it's a sound merchant, something that's very close," he has stated. "The bell is only about a foot away from my mouth, as opposed to a foot and a half or two feet away with a trumpet."

But even when Butch Morris restricts himself to the cornet, as when Ellington recorded his piano trio, it's worth delving for the composer's mind at work--not only in the musical content of the phrases, but also in the range of sounds, effects, and textures. Morris has been known to insert the horn's mouthpiece into its bell, to blow across the bottom of the valves like a panpipe, to realize his ideas on an instrument that represents, after all, only a small portion of the "instrument" he more regularly controls.

What's more, the settings for his performances this weekend both demand an unusual degree of the conductor's sensibility, because in both, attention paid to one part at the expense of the whole would prove unusually damaging. On Saturday, he performs as one of four onstage figures in Sandra Binion's performance piece, "The Result of the Search for Something Simple and Uncomplicated," 9 PM at Links Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield; 281-0824. This is the second time Morris will join in this piece; he helped Binion premiere it in Berlin in 1985. Tonight at 8 PM, Morris and bassist Malachi Favors of the Art Ensemble of Chicago form a duo that will fill the South End Music Works, 341 W. Superior; 283-0531.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jurgen Wilhelm.

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