Graded on a Curve: Butch Morris, In Touch…But Out of Reach

The great cornet player/composer/conductor Butch Morris passed on the 29th of January, leaving behind a fine career in jazz. His music was groundbreaking yet rich in tradition, and through a large discography he touched the lives of many a curious listener. Morris’ first release as a leader is 1982’s In Touch…But Out of Reach, and if not highly representative of the later stuff that largely shapes his grand reputation, it’s still a fantastic (and yes, highly scarce) LP, one that provides much enjoyment and insight into his mature work.

“Music isn’t something on paper, it’s something you make. It’s something you make, and hear”—Butch Morris

He was born Lawrence Douglas Morris in 1947, but those who’d closely followed the labyrinthine developments in jazz over the last thirty years knew him as Butch. He was an outstanding writer and player of the cornet, but his true claim to musical immortality came as a conductor, bringing a radical but highly productive new method to the improvisational discourse.

Like his contemporary, the late violinist Billy Bang, he was a veteran of the Vietnam War, where he served as a medic. Upon returning home, he joined a generation of younger musicians in deeply exploring the vast potential of jazz in a period where the music was in serious danger of being relegated to the status of a museum piece.

In stemming the tide of stagnation, many observers questioned if the sounds Morris took such a large role in creating were actually even jazz. With every great advance in the form another wave of moldy figs arises to lend an air of contention, their public gestures of doubtfulness reliably falling on the wrong side of history.

Nearly all great musicians have either a single release or a specific period in their growth that helps to define their achievement. With Morris it’s surely Testament: a Conduction Collection, a 10-CD set issued by New World Records in 1995 that assembled recordings of his structured improvisation and brought them to easily availability.

To be blunt, the material included on that document continues to be a revelation, easily one of the most important and rewarding releases of its decade. It was also an extremely generous way to get acquainted with an experience that was at once startlingly new and agreeably familiar. Conduction, as Morris’ method was dubbed, allowed the conductor to shape the improvisational piece through a series of gestures and signs, strategies that guide what the musicians do but not necessarily the manner in which they do it.

What resulted was a bold approach of rich complexity and beauty, and it was welcomed by avant-jazz aficionados, New Music fans in general and particularly by partisans of the whole Downtown NYC experience, a scene where Morris had spent considerable time working out his ideas since the late ‘70s. After Vietnam but prior to his move to the East Cost, he returned to his home city of Los Angeles, learning from notable bandleaders Horace Tapscott and Charles Moffett, also briefly residing in France and the Netherlands where he worked as a player and teacher.

Morris’ early days in New York are generally spoken of in relation to saxophonist David Murray, his longtime friend and creative associate. His composition “Joanne’s Green Satin Dress” appears on Murray’s debut masterpiece Flowers for Albert in 1976, and the following year his cornet playing surfaced on two live records from Murray’s group the Low Class Conspiracy, Vol. I: Penthouse Jazz and Vol. II: Holy Siege on Intrigue (though his first appearance on record came through saxophonist Frank Lowe’s Tricks of the Trade, released the same year).

From there, the albums on which he appeared began to pile up, though most were small issues from imprints like Palm and Musicworks, and Morris’ first LP as leader In Touch…But Out of Reach didn’t arrive until 1982, though it befits the spirit of the era that it contains a live set captured four years earlier. The label responsible was Kharma, an enterprise with a succinct discography that includes such major names as free drummer extraordinaire Sunny Murray, pianist Burton Greene, and German multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel.

It’s an understatement to describe In Touch…But Out of Reach as a rarity. It’s never been repressed on vinyl, reissued on CD, or made available for purchase digitally. Some will question paying tribute to Morris via a record that’s so hard to find, but there are currently two remembrances on blogs that provide an opportunity to hear the LP either in part or in full.

It’s also true that basically all of the vinyl issued under Morris’ leadership will be difficult to obtain in that form, even ‘85’s Current Trends in Racism in Modern America, a fascinating album that offers the results of Conduction #1 by bringing together members of the Downtown scene, specifically saxophonist John Zorn, turntablist Christian Markley, and auto-harpist Zeena Parkins with players more firmly situated in the avant-jazz tradition like Lowe and drummer Thurman Barker.

Paying props to Conduction #1 certainly makes sense, but the first recorded example of the method actually came on Billy Bang’s excellent ’82 LP Outline Number 12. In Touch…But Out of Reach might find Morris in a more traditional, less defining early mode, but it also sheds light on his approach to improvisation, and provides an example of some very fine music from a lineup that’s specific to this recording.

Immediately notable is the presence of Grachan Moncur III, the vital trombonist who’d recorded in the ‘60s as a leader for Blue Note and as a member of Archie Shepp’s group for Impulse, also figuring in the explosion of free-jazz recording pressed-up through the Euro label BYG/Actuel. Moncur is the clear veteran of this band, his warm sound providing a link to the earlier generation of players who clearly influenced the music being made to much smaller renown in the late-‘70s NYC lofts and art-spaces.

Pianist Charles Eubanks is the cousin of the highly prolific brothers Kevin and Robin Eubanks, the former having replaced Branford Marsalis as bandleader during Jay Leno’s tenure on The Tonight Show. But neither he nor Robin holds the distinction of serving as a session player during Motown’s ‘60s heyday. In the jazz realm, Charles Eubanks has worked with figures as diverse as Art Blakey, Dewey Redman, Tony Bennett, and Rashied Ali.

Butch’s brother Wilber holds down the bass spot. Before his death in 2002 he worked extensively, particularly with David Murray, often alongside his brother. He also contributed to the bands of Bang, Lowe, heavyweight saxophonist Charles Gayle, and his fellow bassist William Parker.

The record features two percussionists, with Bobby Battle being by far the less prolific of the two. The majority of his recordings find him in the bands of first-rate pianist Don Pullen and saxophonist Arthur Blythe, though his sole release as a leader, ‘93’s The Offering, also found Murray as part of the band.

The other half of the battery is the late Steve McCall, most notable for his membership in the absolutely crucial trio Air, one of the finest groups to spring from the fertile soil of the ‘70s jazz scene. That alone would be enough to secure his place in improvisational history, but he also played with trumpeter Ted Curson, saxophonists Marion Brown and Anthony Braxton, and pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Cecil Taylor.

The general thrust of this sextet can be described as deep yet highly welcoming, which is unsurprising since it was recorded in concert at the NYC loft-space ENVIRON on the 22nd and 23rd of December 1978. In many distinct ways the jazz that emerged from the ‘70’s lofts outlined a reengagement with melodicism and natural accessibility, a sort of warmly invigorating calm after the storm of go-for-broke collective improv sessions that took place a few years earlier, documented on records like Dave Burrell’s Echo and Alan Silva and the Celestrial Communications Orchestra’s massive 3LP Seasons.

While admirable and often amazing, that type of cathartic mayhem was never really Morris’ bag. He’s always been more about structure. If an exceptional player (as this LP shows), his skills as an instrumentalist were pretty evenly divided with composing in his early period, and even the radical newness of his later Conduction efforts possessed a organizational discipline that was integral to their success.

Side one’s relatively concise opener “Irin Sun” is largely a showcase for Eubanks’ somewhat Jarrett-like piano, though both Moncur and Morris have their moments of sweetness, both touched with a hint of the abstracted blues. Along the way the percussionists do an impressive job of accenting the mood.

Blues is also a component in the nearly 18-minute “Narobia,” especially in the playing of Moncur. Post-bop hardliners will likely never cotton to the looseness and grit of his playing, but his ties to tradition are a big part of why he was called upon by such stalwart leaders as Shepp, Jackie MacLean, and indeed Morris. Here Moncur lays down some fantastic soloing, as does Butch, his expressiveness far more concerned with ideas and energy than in showing-off his virtuosity on the cornet.

Sparks do fly. Eubanks cozies up to a mildly McCoy Tyner-ish feel, though happily he never goes overboard with the block chords. And the rhythm section brings the heat, Morris anchoring on bass as both Battles and McCall blend together and create an assertive, rumbling aural landscape.

“Lovers Existing on the Dunes – Lonely Thrill” takes up the entirety of the second side, reaching 20 minutes as all the participants get opportunities to shine within an atmosphere of heightened collectivity. Wilber bows his bass, the drum kits are given some major blows, and once again Moncur gets quite exploratory. In fact, fans of Moncur’s BYG/Actuel disc New Africa should find this record right up their alley

In Touch…But Out of Reach is a document of a highly successful performance, but it frankly could’ve been better recorded. Wilber’s bass is hard to absorb at times, and with musicians of this stature and music of this melodic complexity, sonic clarity is pretty essential in bringing out all the subtleties. Perhaps this is why Morris tersely described the LP as “a big headache” when asked about it in an online forum a few years ago. But if a pain for him, it remains a joy for the ears, subpar audio and all.

Vinyl fans looking for a taste of Butch will need to focus mostly on the ‘80s. Nearly everything he recorded after that time is CD or digital only. This isn’t a surprise. Jazz labels embraced the compact disc with delight back then. If high-quality (and often high-priced) reissues of classic older titles are common today, contemporary jazz is still frequently issued only on CD or digital. And the jazz musicians themselves are likely to committed to their music to devote much energy to concerns of format; whether it’s in the rehearsal space, in the studio or on the bandstand, they just want to keep working.

Sadly, Butch Morris’ work on this planet is done. Now it’s up to us listeners to keep his achievement alive by engaging with it, sharing it and celebrating it. We can do this in many different ways; by jumping headfirst into Testament; by engaging with his Conduction efforts chronologically beginning with the Bang album; by soaking up his prolific work with Murray; or by simply cherry-picking from the more than 100 releases that bear his contribution either as player, composer, or conductor.

Without hearing each and every one it becomes a bit difficult to place In Touch…but Out of Reach in the grand scheme of Morris’ career, but from an incomplete perspective it’s a record that provides many revelations. Most importantly, it holds some excellent music. And music is what drove Butch Morris. He made a lot of it in his too short lifetime, and now that he’s gone, the frequently brilliant sounds he took part in creating serve as the gifts that attest to his legacy.


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