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Butch Morris

Last Thursday Laurie Anderson began her residency at SF Jazz with a duet performance with Eyvind Kang on viola. With Ms. Anderson on electric violin and MacBook (yes, I think we can officially call the Mac an instrument) generating samples and sound effects and loops and echoes, the expanded range of the viola to violin was lovely. They both improvised over tonal centers and motifs. One tends to forget what an accomplished violinist she is; for all the performance art aspects of her work and the visuals, this was a performance that centered on her tone (lovely, not an easy thing on a solid body electric) and ideas. I realized she has probably listened to a fair amount of the late violinist Billy Bang (a long time colleague of Butch Morris). The performance was re-scheduled from a year before, due to the death of Lou Reed. Without needing to overtly mention it, the evening was all about life, and death, and love. The first spoken words were about the death of her father, later the death of a mare, and the love of a stallion in her family for a mare, who was eventually sold, to the heartbreak of the stallion. There were no electronic effects on her voice, which was intimate and conversational in the small space. Kang was solid and attentive; often one had to look at their hands to figure out who was playing what. His acoustic viola, a beautiful instrument, was also treated with some looping and echo effects. Ms. Anderson, with trade mark spiked hair, wore a knee length baggy silk plaid shirt, and silk pants that resembled jeans. A very hip grunge look. As with all her performances, the profound, and the absurd are noted with wry humor and modesty, in the face of an unknowable universe. Which why, 40 years into her career, she is still the hippest gal (or guy) in town.
Last Thursday the great composer and instrumentalist Henry Threadgill performed "A Tribute to Butch Morris" as part of the New Frequencies Fest, Jazz in the Present Tense at Yerba Buena Center. Billed as the Henry Threadgill Double-Up, the band featured pianists David Bryant and David Virelles, alto saxophonists Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu, drummer Craig Weinrib, tuba player Jose Davila, and cellist Christopher Hoffman. Threadgill listened from the side of the stage glancing at charts, occasionally sprinting to the front of the band to cue an ensemble section. I would have loved to hear his alto sax and flute comment on and cajole the band's playing, but Threadgill chose just to conduct. Unlike his comrade in arms, my late friend Butch Morris, it seemed the long pieces were fairly well worked out, with stretches of free improvisations brought back to earth by intricate written motifs. Butch's compositions were almost entirely improvised, hence his inventing the term, conduction. But in the unique polytonal and polyrhythmic textures, it was indeed a fabulous tribute to Butch, and I'm sure he would have been very moved. Butch also was a great instrumentalist in the first half of his career, on cornet. We had talked about recording together when he was still playing in the early 80s. It's one of my few regrets. "Too ting ting ting for me" was the way Butch described retro jazz. Threadgill, like Butch, makes sure the music keeps changing.

As my dear late friend Butch Morris remarked, "As long as I'm a black man playing a cornet, I'll be a jazz musician in other people's eyes.  That's good enough for me.  There's nothing wrong with being called a jazz musician".  Amen.  In the history of Afro-American improvised music, most of the greats have stressed that they don't play jazz, they play Louis Armstrong, or Duke Ellington, or Miles Davis music.  "Call it whatever you want". as Miles said pithily after his performance at The Isle of Wight.  Cecil Taylor was denied a birthday celebration at Jazz at Lincoln Center years ago for having the temerity to say he didn't play jazz, he played Cecil Taylor music.  Readers of my blogs know how impressed I am by Christian Scott.  Young, angry, brilliant, the New Orleans trumpeter is the real deal, and the true successor to Miles.  Incorporating everything he hears, and not afraid to go outside and beyond the "tradition", including rock, hip hop, and classical music.  In his latest recording, the self-titled Christian Atunde Adjuah, there is a lengthy and brilliant essay "Letter to a Future Artist".  His main point being that "you can descibe me as a jazz musician, just don't define me as one.  Definitions being limited, and truly creative music of the time will transcend definition.  I think Butch would second that sentiment, and I imagine he would like Christian's directions in music.  The recording is a must have, and a must read.

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