BUTCH MORRIS/JUMP ARTS ORCHESTRA

Conduction 117
Jumps Arts JA002

One of the most discussed, but ultimately unsuccessful, notions of the 1950s and 1960s was the attempted fusion of improvised and orchestral music into the so-called Third Stream. Besides the non-cooperation of most so-called classical types, the main reason this didn’t work was that Third Stream’s most committed composers, like John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, appeared to be trying to put a jazz face on essentially pre-modern serious music. What ended up was a hybrid somewhat like a jet equipped with tricycle wheels.

It wasn’t until the 1990s and the maturity of younger musicians who grew up learning both improvisation and composition that this fusion was attempted again. Not surprising, though, the majority of memorable works by Anthony Braxton, Simon H. Fell and the like have come from those whose primary alliances were with jazz and improvised music.

Initially a cornettist, and a long time conductor of tenor man David Murray’s larger groups, Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris has provided the next breakthrough for orchestral improvisation. As he demonstrates on this CD, it involves putting together a group of like-minded improvisers — 24 in this case — to follow his codified vocabulary of 18 gestures or hand signals and collectively produce a musical work. Called conduction, or conducted improvisation, his system provides a focus for music making, yet it frees improvisers from the predetermined constrictions of a written score.

Morris has experimented with this technique over the past few years with many groups of North American, European and Asian players. This fairly brief — less than 36½ minute — excursion is also one of his most successful, since all the members of The Jump Arts Orchestra are young New Yorkers with few ideological axes to grind — or play.

Made up of musicians who have experience in rock, classical, jazz and ethnic musics and encompassing members of such cutting-edge bands as The Gold Sparkle, The Transcendentalists and some of bassist William Parker’s bigger projects, this structural flexibility of large-ensemble interaction is used to its utmost.

Most of the aural sparks that fly result from the friction produced when different musical themes come into play. A viola playing in a so-called classical style will be framed against the orchestra’s jazz-like horn section, for instance, or the repeated clawing tones of low-pitched reeds burrowing into the score’s centre will suddenly be replaced by counter motifs from higher-pitched instruments.

Sometimes, a sound like David Brandt’s shimmering marimba aside will make up a continuo beneath the other instruments. Elsewhere a repeated triad from say, John Blum’s piano or produced from one of the clarinetists will define the shape of an ongoing section or underscore the entire work. Alternately, the cushiony blend of Bethany Ryker’s French horn and Tom Abbs’s tuba can prepare the atmosphere for a speedy pinprick of discordant notes from other horns. Other times, reed, brass, string and percussion lines will be built one atop another like the fillings in one of Dagwood’s sandwiches, so the pungent spice of one can only be experienced by tasting all the others.

Occasionally space is made for pure-jazz solos, usually from the reeds or rhythm section. Andrew Baker drum tap dance and Abbs’s low-toned tuba makes impressions that way. Most notable is one trombonist — very likely Steve Swell — who is given his head at one point to transforms one section from a protracted group improv with echoes of early Stravinsky to the sort of showcase Charles sounds, perhaps because of musicians’ history or playing experience, recall some of Mingus’ extended large scale compositions or the repeated rhythm of Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music. More pointedly, with the small platoon of players participating — with some instruments played by more than one person — naming the individual soloists somewhere on the disc would have been a good idea.

Other than that, Morris’ idea that “musicians [who] communicate from vastly different perspectives” results in a “music of collective imagination” seems to hold true here.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Section 1 2. Section 2 3. Section 3 4. Section 4

Personnel: Matt Lavelle, John Birdsong (trumpets); Reut Regev, Steve Swell (trombones); Bethany Ryker (French horn); Tom Abbs (tuba) Gamiel Lyons (flute); Charles Waters (clarinet); Assif Tshar, Oscar Noriega (bass clarinet); Stuart Bogie (contralto clarinet); Suzanne Chen (bassoon); Chris Jonas (soprano saxophone); Patrick Brennen (alto saxophone); Brian Settles (tenor saxophone); John Blum (piano); Jessica Pavonne, Dylan Willemsa (violas); Shia Shu Yu, Okkyung Lee (cellos); Todd Nicholson, Bernard Rosat (basses); David Brandt (marimba); Andrew Barker (drums); Butch Morris (conductor)