FMP #20: Butch Builds Skyscrapers

Butch Morris. Photo by Dagmar Gebers

Butch Morris. Photo: Dagmar Gebers / FMP

Critic Greg Tate calls this massive double album One of the Greatest Jazz Recordings of All Time – and we’re not going to argue! Berlin Skyscraper marks the apex of Butch Morris’s famed conduction recordings. An ensemble of the finest Euro jazz and classical players combines compositional strategies and daredevil improv, startling textures and unexpected rhythms, into a visionary testament.

As Art Lange wrote, “There’s really nothing in jazz or classical music comparable to these discs, because the participants are seeking to create something new via the collaboration of conductor and improviser, and not re-create something that already exists.” In the words of the liner notes (included as a PDF with the download), “Butch Morris helps the music gain more freedom by limiting the freedom of the musician. A paradox? For some, maybe. Yet all this is resolved in that magic moment, when the conductor counts in with a wave of the baton.”

Speaking of the liner notes, they go into some detail regarding Morris’ methods of conduction. A bit of background might help the listener put these amazing sounds into some context:

Morris, who had been living in Berlin for several months in 1995 thanks to a DAAD-grant (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch-Dienst), was able to put together an orchestra of his choice from Berlin musicians for the “Total Music Meeting” of that year. None of the 17 musicians had previously worked with Morris. Also, the experience with improvisation and the abilities to improvise in the border areas between Jazz and experimental New Music were markedly different.

A couple of days before the start of the five-day “Total Music Meeting ’95,” Butch Morris began “rehearsals” – and for both parties, conductor and ensemble began the learning process which always follows the same rules with Morris. The first guided improvisations give the maestro an idea of what his musicians can contribute in the way of craftsmanship and creativity. The musical and musicianly power determines the proceedings over the following days, the degree of its success. As the next step, the ensemble members have to learn and internalise Butch Morris’ wordless code of speech: a “vocabulary” of 20 gestures and hand-signals, which he uses to make the musicians understand what he wants from them. At times Morris requests the band to remain at a certain point, then there may be a call for forced action. There are signs for loud and soft, for crescendo and decrescendo, legato or pizzicato. There is a sign for taking musicians – individually or in groups – out of the playing, or for getting them back into it. Additionally there is the work with the baton, which, at times, is used like a film camera panning: only the one musician is allowed to play, who is at the point indicated by the conductor’s baton.

…Morris does not see his signs as strict rules. The musician is merely instructed to act responsibly within the current ensemble context. When Morris indicates “repeat”, he does not tell the band member what to repeat. The musician has to decide on that himself within a fraction of a second. The “remember” sign, on the other hand, reminds the band to remember what is being played in this instant and to be able to recall it at any time.

And as Morris himself recalled it, in a 1996 interview with David Henderson in BOMB magazine, “The crowds were great every night. On the night of November 3rd, just before starting, I could feel the energy, in my back, and on the stage, from not just me and the ensemble, but from the audience. I could feel the anticipation. And when we began it was like we were on a ride together, all of us.”

Out of print for years and usually prohibitively expensive, this new 2-CD download also includes PDFs containing the original liner notes in German and in English translation; a PDF of the CD insert, front and back; and a PDF portrait of Butch Morris, suitable for framing.

Category commerce, FMP, Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris