When he conducts, the electricity flows

Boston Globe, June 12, 2005

NEW YORK—It’s a raw, damp Monday night in the midst of a miserly spring, yet inside Nublu, an East Village club devoted to edgy music, all is hipness and heat. Baton in hand, Lawrence “Butch” Morris is leading a 10-piece ensemble in collective improvisation, using the ambitious, unusual technique that has made him an icon in progressive jazz and new music circles.

There is no sheet music involved, no plan, just a starting point. Morris does not tell his musicians what to play, but rather how to play it, sculpting the sound in real time with a vocabulary of gestures that mean, for instance, “remember,” “repeat,” or “sustain.” In full-fledged performance such as his upcoming three- night stand at the Green Street Grill in Cambridge Morris might deploy two dozen such cues. At Nublu, a more casual gathering, he sticks to just a few.

Even simplified, the music is rich, unusual, challenging. It swells like a tide, the ensemble forging sonic hypotheses and testing them at once, then withdrawing to try a new angle. Morris throws signs, jogs memories, summons disruptions, until the energy in the room confirms that something a connection is happening. There are moments of great beauty, and others that are jarring, when the center fails to hold. The finished edifice is imperfect. But it belongs to the conductor, the musicians, and the audience an irreproducible shared space.

Morris calls his technique “conduction,” reserving the title for occasions when he designs a specific ensemble and holds several days of intense preparation. Since “Conduction 1: Current Trends in Modern American Racism” in 1985, over 140 such events have been held. This year, for what he called “Black February,” Morris held a conduction marathon, conducting 40 shows with different instrumentation at multiple New York venues. This week’s Green Street stand will be the first official Conduction since that one.

“I’m not an academic, and I’m not an intellectual,” Morris offers the next morning over cappuccino and eggs at another of his East Village haunts. “I’m a musician with an idea.”

That idea that conduction can unlock facets of the musical experience that neither notated nor improvised music alone can achieve has propelled an iconoclastic, risk-taking career, in which Morris has eschewed record sales in favor of experimenting with jazz bands, new music collaboratives, symphony orchestras, and traditional ensembles from countries like Japan and Turkey.

He has also scored music for television, theater, and dance, and collaborated with writers such as Ntozake Shange and Greg Tate. One current venture involves an ensemble of 18 poets who rework poems syllable by syllable.

As a teenager in Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood, in the 1960s, Morris fell for jazz and R&B thanks to the vast collection of records his older brother left at home upon enlisting in the military. But awareness bred questions. “I wanted to figure out the fine points of notation and the fine points of improvisation. And also, through the weaknesses of all of them, what the necessities of music were for me.”

It was more than a technical query, for Morris knew that what moved him most in music was the unexplainable and mysterious part, the part that comes through in the pure emotion of soul. “I don’t think there is anything in the music business like hearing a singer pour his or her heart out,” he explains. “Like Donny Hathaway. Exactly. That’s what I’m after.”

In jazz, that same primordial force Morris calls it “subatomic” resides in the group dynamic. “I realized I was looking for the essence of swing, what makes swing. And swing is interaction, swing is combustion, making things happen between the elements.” Morris questioned why a large ensemble could not produce the same intense combustion as a small group.

After returning from service in Vietnam, Morris enrolled in a classical conducting class. It was a mixed experience: “I asked my teachers, how can I get the violins to go down here, the cellos to do this, and they would say, why would you want to do that? My response was flexibility, to make this piece of music alive and of course they didn’t know what I was talking about.”

At the same time, however, Morris met the drummer Charles Moffett, a close friend of Ornette Coleman, who had wrestled with similar questions and developed a small set of signs to reshape notated music during performance. Working with Moffett, he began to imagine his own ambitious system.

In the fertile New York avant-garde loft scene of the late 1970s, Morris reunited with a childhood friend, saxophonist David Murray. Morris played trumpet and composed for Murray’s pathbreaking octet, and the two formed a big band with Morris as conductor. Their partners included John Hicks, Fred Hopkins, Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara, and others.

The work with Murray, while forward-looking in nature, was also relatively structured. But like many musicians of that moment, Morris also took part in hyper-free “energy orchestras” that featured wild, intense, uncontrolled playing.

“However, in these free-form gatherings, a lot of things were happening musically,” Morris says. “And I would always think, why don’t we capture that moment, isolate that moment and deal with the detail of that moment.”

With conduction, Morris has evolved a system of performance that allows just that.

“The challenge of group improvisation with more than four or five people is there’s a tendency for the texture to get too thick,” says Allan Chase, a jazz saxophonist and the dean of faculty at the New England Conservatory. “Butch has come up with a great technique for making large-group improvisational music that’s interesting, exciting, varied, that has a strong direction.”

At Green Street, Morris’s ensemble will include, he says, “two violins, bass, guitar, electronics, someone to do sampling, flute, clarinet, oboe or bassoon, concert harp, and accordion,” mixing close collaborators from New York with fresh talent from the Boston scene.

For John Clifford, the proprietor of Green Street, the upcoming stand has a poignance. It harks back to the glory days of jazz programming at the Central Square spot at the time still known as Charlie’s Tap. During an epic run in the mid-’80s, the bar hosted a pantheon of young jazz virtuosos including Murray, Hopkins, Hicks, Geri Allen, Paul Motian, Hugh Ragin, Dewey Redman, and a fledgling Cassandra Wilson. “It’s a dream come true,” says Clifford, to be presenting avant-garde jazz once again.

Morris says the audience should expect excitement, and Chase agrees. “It’s really a musical adventure that the audience and the players are on,” Chase says. “Because no one knows what’s going to happen.”