Butch Morris’ Clinic in Good Music
When you hear “unpredictability factor,” that’s usually a red flag, whether it’s a boss, a ballplayer or a band you’re talking about. Butch Morris, on the other hand, has made a career out of unpredictability, which is why his “conductions,” as he calls his live performances with (usually) a large ensemble, are so consistently excellent. He’s been playing up a storm lately, on Tuesdays downstairs at Lucky Cheng’s at 8 and at Zebulon on Sundays at 4:30 PM. But for deep listening, his most fascinating weekly show these days might be the one at the Stone on Mondays starting at 7:30 with an open rehearsal followed by a performance of the material he’s just worked up at around nine. If you play improvised music, whether that be jazz, salsa, reggae or jamband rock, this show is a must-see – and you have plenty of chances to catch it, since his Stone residency continues through the end of this March. At worst, it’s a refresher course in good ideas; at best, it’s a master class by one of the most important figures in jazz and for that matter in any kind of musical improvisation.
Monday night he had an eleven-piece band to work with, a characteristically unorthodox lineup that included three percussionists, two bassists, piano, mandolin, bass clarinet, trumpet, tenor sax and vocals (everybody wants to play with Morris, so the players vary from show to show). As conductor, Morris has a set of hand signals not unlike a baseball third-base coach’s signs: it’s more complex than “back to the head” but not all that much more. Depending on where the music is going, Morris may add or subtract voices or move between themes from a sketch, a brief composition or something the group’s just made up on the spot. Conduction actually has a long, long historical precedent: Middle Eastern bandleaders have been doing it for millennia, and many classical conductors, notably Leonard Bernstein, have given it a go.
This time around the “information,” as Morris likes to call it, was a deftly assembled, brightly rhythmic, Brazilian-tinged composition of his that worked extremely clever variations around a central note. But the group didn’t just jam on the changes. Rehearsing it, Morris had the rhythm section begin it a couple of times before bringing in the whole ensemble, or a smaller handful of players as they felt their way around improvising on a series of three themes. If you think that watching the same piece of music over and over again for an hour and a half is tedious, you are in for a real surprise. The only player who actually got much of a solo this time out was the trumpeter, who finally cut loose with a vivid, tender, precisely articulated four or five bars. Considering the terseness of the rest of the individual contributions, that definitely wasn’t planned.
Otherwise, Morris hammered the point home again and again: simplicity! “If you have information surrounded by a lot of space, that’s good,” he reminded the crew. This was a talented but combative bunch. On one hand, the rapport between Morris and his players is one of complete, mutual trust; on the other, these are A-list players, Obviously, you can jam on any piece of music ever written, but Morris takes the concept to the next level. Musicians tend to gravitate to playing variations that work in a traditional melodic sense, but Morris wanted to stretch this crew out. At one point when the energy was particularly high, he had them each work out individual improvised riffs, then transpose each to a different tonality and then use those as a basis for more extended improvisation. The trumpeter took exception to that. “So she’s playing the second, and I’m playing the fourth, which will make it static and…”
Morris was unperturbed. “If she’s playing the second and you’re playing the fourth, that’s fine,” he said. The result proved the trumpeter right – for about thirty seconds, as the band held dissonant sheets of noise up against each other, and at this point Morris left them to their own devices. And it was as if the sun had come out from behind the clouds: working their way back to simple, memorable riffs on the original theme, they’d crossed a bridge, triumphantly, both together and alone. If Morris knew what was coming, he didn’t let on. At the end, he had the group do the piece all the way through, pulling musicians into and then back into the arrangement, throwing split-second individual mini-solos at various players, shaking up the rhythm (which is just as important in Morris conductions as melodic contributions) and turning what in lesser hands could have been Spyro Gyra into a joyous mesh of voices with just enough dissonance to make it real. Morris has done hundreds of these conductions: by the end of his residency at the Stone, he will have done over a thousand. You should see one.