A Review of Butch Morris conducting the New York Skyscraper, Conduction #139

On May 31, 2004, after a week of diverse and significant jazz, the ninth Vision Festival opened its last day with a Memorial Day tribute to two well-loved and well-remembered bassists, Peter Kowald and Wilber Morris. Appropriately, the evening began with Butch Morris, Wilberís brother, leading the New York Skyscraper band in a moving and texturally evocative performance of Conduction #139. That a man known for challenging conventional and traditional expectation could stand before the assembled crowd and so beautifully eulogize the memory of two departed friends through the music of his own composition is a powerful testimony both to the success of Morrisís musical paradigm and to the ability of that music, far from being a purely intellectual enterprise, to communicate emotion and sympathy even as it challenges the way in which music is composed, conducted, and played.
Although the piece, a suite composed of three compositions spanning four decades, is numbered as a part of the Conduction series, Morris explains that it is really a work that points to his future efforts in Induction, which uses the Conduction process to further define and develop his composed notation. As such, ìRequiemî (1975), ìIf I Should Dieî (1996), and ìThe Death of Danny Loveî (1994) are all notated pieces that the 23 piece orchestra (fittingly absent a bass, although rooting itself in resonating bass tones) played from while being conducted in their interpretation by Morris. The selection of compositions made for an appropriate elegy in their shared theme of mortality, but the impetus for Morris to eulogize his brother and friend with a piece of Induction material is interesting also, for the Induction process is what inspired Morrisís subsequent efforts in Conduction. The Memorial Day performance was as much a return to Morrisís musical roots as it was a look forward to the work we can expect from him in the future (although an artist such as Butch Morris, of course, is significant in the way that he subverts and reshapes audience expectation).
Conduction #139 began with a dark piano texture, upon which Morris drew the cello, alternating between thematic melody and dynamic tonal repetition. The cello melody took on an Arabic theme above a baritone orchestral swell that modulated into the gentle pulse of static washing over in tidal harmonic waves, in response to a fluid Conduction style that drew a crescendo from the orchestra, punctuated by drum hits beneath the swell. Violins echoed the horns and diverged from their own melodies while mournful staccato drums played with funeral suggestion. Against this rhythmic theme, Morris called forth hard orchestral hits syncopated against the drums, before melting the orchestra into the bottomless sea of harmony, founded upon the tonal constancy of the horns and synthesizer, that would provide the base for much of the work, lending it the decidedly oceanic quality that framed its emotive themes. A saxophone played blues longingly, with a profound sense of loss. ìKnowing where to run, run nowhere fastî, sang the soaring female vocals while horns fought hard against the melody and violins laid layers of heartbeat harmony with swells and waves of minor chord interplay. The fight was abandoned in an exhaustive draw, and a lonesome oboe walked upon the remains.
Pausing, Morris drew a breath and exploded in an inspired frenzy, summoning a contest of aggressive playing that stopped hard, vocals floating above the harmonic textural tapestry, disappearing into waves of concentrated bursts, to reappear, to disappear. The strings buzzed anxious while horns punctuated drum hits and the strings exploded rhythmic, working into smooth harmony that fell into a floating ether of voice, while punctuations turned combative once more, Morris looking calmly detached, engaged intuitively in the sound that he and his band were inspiring. A syncopated rhythm, founded by synthesizer and horns and rounded by cello, rolled while the piano played minor key classical blues, the tidal movement of the harmony providing rhythmic structure to a trumpet rising above the deep rolling bass of drums. Forlorn and timeless currents of sound emerged while the vocals soared, a hi-hat cymbal emerged, was washed away by strings, and the texture of the piece resonated and throbbed. Above the pulse, vocals flew melodic and the saxophone played upon the saddest blues, reaching, acting out the narrative suggested by the vocal emotion. Unified cadences of orchestral tonality rose and fell as strings reappeared to show us the story while horns bubbled to emerge, cymbals washing over tonal sand, strings gliding freely in flock, a sublime and beautiful tapestry woven in sound.
Slowly, the sounds departed, first to a slow simmer, and then to the violin alone, punctuated by keys, Morris calling upon the deep bass tones to swell, to arise, to arouse his tonal motif, to illuminate the darkness of backlighted blackened clouds. These moments, so rich in texture amid the suggestions of melodic longing, are where he and his band are at service to the piece, allowing the music to play of its own gravity. Darkness rolled about the saddest melody of a dreamscape deathwomb, strings and horns moving together with melodic harmony before the strings emerged against the texture and carried the vocals, while the singer sang farewell. Using the repetition of arpeggio, keys played chords while pizzicato strings moved against. It swirled like being alone. Deep bass tones faded into scientific patterns and the melody glided and moved, pulling and releasing, finally releasing to the singerís sad lament: ìThey would not let you go.î The drone of violin while horns played countermelody to the vocals faded to textural interpretations as the vocals moved, moved by their own impulse, into the tragic orchestral themes. Morris was profoundly engaged, evoking the movements.
One strength of the Conduction vocabulary, as applied to pieces of Induction material, is that it allows for the spontaneous interpretation of the score, both on the part of Morris and on the part of his band. This process is what allows the band to move from sharp staccatos to subtle staccatos, to the elegance of a solo arpeggiated piano, alone and resigned, as though giving oneself over and then mourning the loss of self, while strings draw forth the longing, and the loss, and washes of melody are fond remembrances. Keeping their tonal thematic consistency, the horns provided the low foundations that supported soaring vocals which seemed to see beyond themselves, at last, to see beyond the loss that will never be undone, that gives way to a gentle current that underlies, that stirs beneath, that eases one home and explodes in an ultimate resonating tonal punctuation, a devastating crescendo of surrender and challenge. There are no illusions left: there is loss, and there is life, intertwined and varied, self-perpetuating in sadnessóThere are no dreams left to dream, and we are alone together, and abandoned.

 

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