Ashes to Ashes


DUST TO DUST, second and third parts
Butch Morris
Dust to Dust
New World Records : 1991

Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, conductor; Zeena Parkins, harp; Myra Melford, piano; Wayne Horvitz, keyboards and electronics; Jean-Paul Bourelly, guitar; Jason Hwang, violin; Marty Ehrlich, clarinet; John Purcell, oboe; J.A. Deane, trombone and electronics; Vickey Bodner, English horn; Janet Grice, bassoon; Brian Carrott, vibraphone; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

The first time D:O saw one of Butch Morris’s Conduction ensembles, they were playing in large tent near Battery Park in NYC. Morris’s crew was twenty strong, the stage thronged with instruments that make up your typical 21st Century big band: guitars, turntables, strings, brass, electronics, and lots of percussion. They were opening for another large ensemble, Henry Threadgill’s amazing and seemingly lost-to-history Society Situation Dance Band — but that’s another story.

Morris’s group unleashed a formidable space funk/avant jazz/classical hybrid that evening. Think Agharta meets Stravinsky. The music was impressive but it was equally stirring to watch Morris guide the group through his Conduction method. He conjured and shaped these futuristic sounds from thin air, shifting gears and introducing new grooves with a simple nod of the head or flick of the baton.

Of course these gestures were all part of a complex series of musical cues and signals that Morris has devised and refined over the years. Even knowing that, the experience imparted the high-wire thrill of pure improvisation but on a larger scale — this time the entire band was the instrumentalist and Morris was the musician, performing with genuine go-for-broke brio.

Many of the Morris’s albums featuring his conduction techniques are drawn from live concerts. In a number of cases, you had to be there. And in some cases, even if you were there, the documents don’t caputure the utter magic generated in the moment. A friend was at one of those recorded shows. He thought it was magnificent. Years later, he got the album only to wonder what happened? The freefall sense of dynamics, rapid tonal shifts, instrumental tension, and instant composition didn’t translate to wax.

Dust to Dust is different. It’s one of the few albums Morris has been able to record in the studio with the album format in mind. The selections are fairly concise, carefully molded with repeated listening in mind. And thanks in part to a grant from the Reader’s Digest Fund, Morris assembled an all-star crew to realize his vision. Take a moment to scan the musician list above and be amazed.

Morris’s music contains multitudes and these tunes aren’t the Stravinskified space funk that we heard so many years ago. (For something more like that, see Morris’s collaboration with Burnt Sugar on The Rites). But these songs do contain shards of that night, along with echoes of ambient, traditional Asian, electronic, 19th Century classical, and plenty of jazz.

The title of the eponymous track may suggest something funeral, but ain’t nobody going quietly in this churning piece. “Othello A,” one of several Italian references on the album, drifts purposefully towards its destination with an aimless beauty. There are plenty of associations to be summoned by this richly evocative music, but for once we won’t crowd your imagination with ours.

Category Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris

17 Responses to Ashes to Ashes

  1. i have this album and really need to pull it out again. a fascinating listen as i remember it.

  2. Hey- great post, thanks. Coincidentally, I’ll be interviewing JA Deane (affectionately known ’round these parts as Dino) in advance of his ten piece conduction ensemble, Out of Context, performing at the Creative Soundspace Festival at the Outpost in Albuquerque. Dino will also be doing a solo set. Also appearing: Myra Melford and Mark Dresser and the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet. May 18, 19 and 20 in Albuquerque if anyone’s in the area then.


  3. Wow. I have dropped the ball with Butch and I obviously need to catch up. Great tracks.

  4. I truly regret missing the chance to see Morris conduce the Luckman Jazz Orchestra some years, back, but, you know, it was expensive and I’m cheap.

    Heard about the conduction thing a lot over the years, but never heard the music. Didn’t expect it to be so fusatory.

  5. correction: fusive, I guess.

  6. Hmm, “fusionist,” according to the dictionary, but that seems pretty weak to me.

  7. hey godoggo – i’ve seen morris a few times and the music isn’t always so, uh, fusionist or whatever. depends heavily on the ensemble he’s leading. some of it can be much more traditionally jazz – not that far from his arranging work with david murray. and occasionally it’s even in the 20th century classical mode.

  8. I can distinctly hear a trumpet in Dust to Dust, but can’t find one in the credits. Is my mind playing me a trick, or is somone left out?

  9. Oops, in case anyone cares, apparently I remembered wrong. I couldn’t find any online info about Morris conducing the LJO, but rather about Newton using Morris’s techniques.

    Yeah, arvid, I hear a trumpet, too.

  10. L.D.”B.”M. did a conduction in Los Angeles a few months ago. His brilliance earned him a loud standing ovation. Everytime the word “conduction” appeared in the program notes it was written as “CONDUCTION ®.” Go figure.

  11. interesting… well worth hearing, and thanks :)

    interested too in the idea of the conductor being the (improvising) player and the ensemble his (her) instrument. i imagine all conductors feel like that to some extent – i know zappa did, made comments late in his life to the effect that the orchestra was his favourite instrument to play; but of course he wasn’t using the orchestra (or band) to improvise, quite the reverse, just wanted to make sure that he got to hear what his dots really sounded like… and that militant attitude stifles the ’88 band imo (i know others swear by them). the idea of an orchestra not just hand-picked for its technical strengths but also with a view to moment-by-moment change and organic growth is quite fascinating… what do you guys think of bobby previte’s miro suite, just out of interest?

  12. …ok, listened again, and have some more thoughts (haven’t heard the previte)…First of all, I think this music is quite stunning. I can appreciate some good, soulful cacophony as the next guy (not so big on ironic cacophony, unless it’s super-funny or super-cool), but I’m especially intrigued by music like this that, by whatever means, manages an extraordinary degree of freedom, while coalescing so well that it sounds almost composed (and I’m wondering how much of it is composed).

    Composers who have achieved this successfully, to my ears (all from L.A., ’cause that’s mostly what I know): John Carter, James Newton, Stuart Liebig, maybe David Ornette Cherry (haven’t heard his recordings, and his current, most ambitious project, Ensemble for Improvisers, is still unrecorded).

    Newton has apparently used Butch’s techniques, as I mentioned, and Cherry does something that looks like the descriptions I’ve read of them (there are several Morris videos on youtube, which I’ll get around to checking out eventually).

    Zappa: his conducting worked for what he wanted, but it looks pretty simple to me: 1,2,3,4, faster, slower, louder softer, point to soloist, wave around for group improv. To see some magnificent performances on youtube, search “Zappa 1973.”

    Yeah, Ben, I heard about that recent Morris performance at Redcat. Missed it, oh well.

  13. There is no trumpet/cornet listed on the cd either. I didn’t think that Mr. Morris played on his conductions, but perhaps that’s the case here.

    I was fortunate enough to be a part of two all trumpet ensembles – Trumpet Nation – that Butch Morris conducted. Both were part of the Dave Douglas/Roy Campbell-curated Festival of New Trumpet Music (2004, 2005). They were both amazing and ear/eye-opening experiences. Mr. Morris has established an incredible palette of gestures and symbols to create his conductions. New World/Counter Currents has a 10 cd set of his conductions called “Testament” – I don’t own it, but I’m sure that it is fantastic.

    Bart – Philly Trumpet Player

  14. anybody know anything about that Threadgill SOCIETY SITUATION DANCE BAND?

    i think i hard some okay bootleg of that group circa the 80s, but i also remember some friends who saw them in the mid 90s and totally went ga ga. like it was the best threadgill ever or whatever. apparently much improved since the 80s version.

    recordings out there? sightings? do tell, pls.

  15. I am glad to see that my work has stimulated so much conversation.
    …Yes I did play (Cornet) on DUST TO DUST….. LONG GOODBYE.
    And yes, my music depends on the ensemble and the time I can spend with it…. It has been difficult to explain my practicum in short amounts of time and get the maximum …. but we all do our best.
    I do explain in the liner notes of DUST TO DUST how much music is written.
    I have six recordings already on the market this year (2007) and the seventh is due out in the fall. If anything, I think they all point to where Iâ??m going with this idea:
    If you are in New York, Nublu Orchestra plays every Monday at Nublu, 62 Ave. C, at 10:30pm and midnight.

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