Butch Morris and Conducted Improvisation

The musician and conductor Butch Morris died Tuesday in Brooklyn at the age of 65. The New York Times obituary* describes him this way:

Butch Morris created a distinctive form of large-ensemble music built on collective improvisation that he single-handedly directed and shaped.

After several decades playing jazz cornet in LA and New York, Morris created his unique style of group improvisation, “conduction,” in 1985. Conduction was short for “conducted improvisation” which Morris defined as “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor.” For example, he would direct a performance with a baton, often establishing the tempo, while waiting for themes to emerge as the musicians collectively improvised. He used a set of hand gestures to guide the performers; a U shape formed with thumb and forefinger meant to repeat what you just played; a finger touching his forehead meant, remember the melodic phrase you just played because I’m going to ask you to play it again later.

Morris performed conductions with a wide variety of ensembles, including a 10-piece ensemble with saxophones, a turntablist, and a singer; a full classical orchestra; 19 poets (!); 15 trumpets; and many other configurations (including some with music boxes).

Morris had a fascinating professional life. In addition to his conduction performances, he was musical director for a short-lived ABC crime series “A Man Called Hawk,” and he wrote original music for the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC.

Butch Morris, improvisational genius, Rest In Peace.

*New York Times editorial by Ben Ratliff, January 30, 2013, page A21.