Butch Morris & Ensemble Laboratorio Novamusica

Conduction 142/1-143/2
Galatina Records CD 0701

True to Butch Morris’ declaration that he wants to work with more than jazz-oriented improvisers, this notable two-CD set finds the New York-based conduction pioneer performing two new ideographic-oriented pieces with the Italian Ensemble Laboratorio Novamusica (ELN).

Considering that the eight-piece Venice-based ensemble was organized more than 15 years ago with the express purpose of researching, studying and performing New music, the fit with Morris is near perfect. Still, the second of these CDs, recorded at Berlin’s Total Music Meeting (TMM) is superior to the first disc taken from a Venice concert three days earlier. On both discs, the ELN – trumpeter Ilich Fenzi, trombonist Umberto de Nigris, Cecilia Vendrasco playing different flutes, violist Piergabriele Mancuso, bassist Andrea Carlon, drummer Peter Gallo, Carlo Carratelli on upright piano and harpsichord plus director Giovanni Mancuso on piano – operates at an enviably high level following Morris’ complex system of signs and gestures. However all concerned seem particularly energized at the TMM. Perhaps it’s because of the location, or maybe it’s because a choir of bass clarinetists – Armand Angster, Peter van Bergen, Wolfgang Fuchs and Hans Koch – joins the band for the final two numbers.

An extension of Berlin-based Fuchs’ all-reeds Holz Für Europa ensemble, the four clarinet group brings an original series of antiphonal and eccentric timbres to the performances, matching the unusual textures ELN has already developed. For instance on “Conduction 143.2 Part 4”, various reed tinctures that include strained glottal harmonies and wide vibrations, alternate contrapuntally with the rubato coloration of the string and flute lines.

With the reeds as abrasively staccato as the brass and strings are harmonically legato, the tongue slaps and responsive split-tones of the clarinets’ quadruple counterpoint frequently override the forward-moving octet passages. Yet as Gallo’s drum flams and cymbal clapping re-orient the tonal centre, the result is a contrapuntal crescendo of dense, connective overtones that include strummed strings and reed expiration. “Part 5” is more of the same, with asymmetrical pizzicato plucks from the strings plus honking and spitting reed ejaculations adding to the timbre layering from Mancuso’s viola and Carratelli’s harpsichord. Eventually, the ensemble’s understated circular runs finally dissolve into silence.

On its own with Morris in Berlin, the ELN displays split-second responses to conduction cues with an improvisational virtuosity that takes in all manner of instrumental techniques. Spiccato strings snap and slide; brass is muted and chromatic; the flute shrills; the harpsichord leaps octaves; and asymmetrical drum beats thunder. There’s even a brief interlude when pianist Mancuso, bassist Carlon and drummer Gallo swing like a mainstream jazz trio, complete with keyboard fills and a walking bass line.

Then there’s “Berlin Squeaking” the 12½-minute introductory miniature at the TMM which encompasses all the characteristics of the Morris-ELN collaboration. Snaking along with ancillary tones, counter tones and overtones, often staccatissimo and fortissimo, the theme combines slurping brass triplets; sul ponticello arco and pizzicato string lines; ruffs, rebounds and cymbal splashes from the drummer; unexpected slide whistle-like textures; and high-frequency piano patterning.

Inflate the duration of “Berlin Squeaking” by a multiple of four to reflect “Conduction 143.1”, the earliest collaboration from Venice. Of high quality, but not at the same level as the subsequent Berlin meeting, this CD-long conduction perhaps reflects a familiarization process for the ensemble and Morris,

Certainly the taut and contrapuntal responses to every one of the Morris’ articulated gestures are there, with the eight players bending notes to reflect the flow of the performance. The major variation includes lengthier and more numerous silent pauses as well as steadying piano motifs, double-bass thumping and blunt cymbal and snare pressure. The unexplained slide whistle peeps are apparent, as are resonating plunger blasts from de Nigris’ trombone and Fenzi’s trumpet. Throughout, sectional divides into instrumental duos, trios and so forth, are showcased, as are the subsequent reassembling into a complete band.

At points, flying staccato strings face braying trombone lines, as rapping rubato percussion accompanies the piano(s) uncoiling and undulating cadences. Meanwhile puffing flute timbres intersect with chromatic trumpet runs. Eventually, diminutive fantasias from the pianos and other instruments take precedence along with abrupt changes in instrumental direction plus distinct, particularized repeated note clusters.

Judging by past performances, Morris’ conductions are evidentially most satisfying when interpreted by an open-minded ensemble. This CD proves that the Venice-based ELN is just such a group. Plus, the addition of the reed section in Berlin results in a performance that attains exceptional resonance.

— Ken Waxman

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Track Listing: Disc 1: Conduction 143.1: 1. Part I1 2. Part 2 3. Part 3 4. Part 4 5. Part 5 Disc 2: 1. Berlin Squeaking //Conduction 143.2: 2. Part 1 3. Part 2 4. Part 3 5. Part 4* 6. Part 5*

Personnel: Disc 1: Ilich Fenzi (trumpet); Umberto de Nigris “barone” (trombone); Cecilia Vendrasco (flutes); Piergabriele Mancuso (viola); Carlo Carratelli (upright piano); Giovanni Mancuso (piano); Andrea Carlon (bass); Peter Gallo (drums) and Butch Morris (conduction) Disc 2: same except Carratelli (harpsichord) plus Armand Angster, Peter van Bergen, Wolfgang Fuchs and Hans Koch (bass clarinets)*