By Heather Corcoran
Composer, conductor and musician Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris has reinvented the way jazz is performed. His style, which he calls Conduction—a combination of conduction and improvisation—uses symbolic gestures to guide musicians, with Morris playing the role of both “soloist and member of the ensemble.” Last week the innovator was feted with a concert at the Bowery Ballroom to celebrate his 60th birthday.
How is Conduction different from conducting?
BM: A traditional conductor interprets music; we make music. Traditional orchestras rehearse what they perform; we do not.
New York and jazz are so tied together. As an artist, you have spent much of your career in New York. How does the city influence you? Inspire you?
BM: Inspiration is not something you get, it is something you acknowledge. I think that we are all inspired people, but some don’t care to acknowledge or investigate it. Jazz is a form I have chosen to investigate and it has brought me this far. If you don’t have questions, you don’t get far. New York is a meeting point for all concerned, I brought questions and I meet people. New York is a city for realists and doers, not for dreamers.
You make a point to differentiate between improvisation and interpretation as it relates to Conduction.
BM: My interest lies in that area between improvisation and notation: where the interpretation of the symbolism that generates notation meets with the spontaneity of improvisation; and in the evolution of the ensemble, and of the individual and collective identities and expressions that constitute music, musicianship and music making for a far greater expression in the sonic arts.
You’ve compared Conduction to picking up a book and reading from any page that catches your attention or focusing on a detail in a painting, why is it important to break from the traditional way of approaching a work of art as a whole?
BM: I in no way want to break from the convention of “beginning to end.” I believe in total understanding. However, I do believe that the interpretation of a work, once understood, could be constructed from (almost) anyplace on the page. A wonderful example of this would be John Coltrane’s many interpretations of “My Favorite Things.”
Not only do you collaborate with different musicians, but other artists in different media. Why is it important to investigate these types of interactions?
BM: The senses are to be educated just like the mind … all of the arts deal with the senses among other things. The connection of the senses helps to determine your (creative) outlook and therefore affects and influences the mind. This is also true of the listener.
You talk about music in terms more often associated with literature and language – interpretation, symbols, vocabulary, dialect, etc. – could you explain that?
BM: When I was developing the vocabulary of Conduction I realized that there was not one music book that could tell me what I wanted to know.
Physics, architecture, linguistics and literature on law (among many) gave me the language with which to understand and describe an expression unstated. In other words, I needed to know more about what I was feeling and attempting to express … and I needed to look everywhere for that information.
What are the best places in the city to hear new music?
BM: The best place to hear new music is between your ears, the best places to “see” new music is wherever you find it ... it is everywhere in this city.
What records do you consider essential for any collection?
BM: If I name one I will have to name 100. There are so many masters at what they do.
What’s next for you?
BM: I have an orchestra waiting for me in Italy!