The Rites

Jul 2, 2003 at 12:00 am
Dear Mysterious Members of the MacArthur Genius Grant selection committee;

Given your thing for secrecy, I figured this was as good a way as any to get in touch. If this is a faux pas, please don’t hold it against my man, Lawrence "Butch" Morris, on whose behalf I seek to pull your esteemed coattails. Morris doesn’t quite fit the mold of any of the other jazz artists on whom you’ve laid those $500,000 grants. He’s not an elder statesman like Max Roach or an elder outsider like Cecil Taylor; he doesn’t have Ran Blake or George Lewis’ academic ties; he’s got two decades on promising thirtysomething Ken Vandermark. But check his work. He’s a damn good trumpeting descendant of Miles Davis by way of the radical Bill (bell-like tones be damned) Dixon. He’s a brilliant melodist whose compositions can leave you humming and even a little moist-eyed.

But his genius is in his improvisatory conducting (which really transcends jazz or any other style). Yeah, yeah, yeah, all the greats — Ellington, Basie, Gil Evans — played their bands, but Morris takes it to a new level where he can stand before an ensemble with nothing written and with his own musical sign language make music happen.

The best measure of leadership — in the arts as elsewhere — is followers, which Morris certainly has. For instance, writer Greg (Flyboy in the Buttermilk) Tate formed a group to adapt Morris’ notions to musicians whose collective roots draw on styles from jazz improv to hip hop. Now, after four great Burnt Sugar records, Tate delivers his baby unto Big Daddy Butch. And to enliven the mix, they recruit guitarist Pete Cosey (from Agartha-era Miles Davis) and bassist Melvin Gibbs (from Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society and the Henry Rollins Band). Oh, yeah, the new disc is a tribute to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; a few echoes of the masterwork surface and submerge into a living sea of sound that ranges from stormy to pacific, but always remains a little mysterious. Give a listen. Write a check.