Seattle keyboardist and composer Wayne Horvitz is bringing more than a briefcase full of charts to this weekend’s Vancouver Improvised Music Meeting. In spirit, at least, he’ll be accompanied by his late mentor, Butch Morris, one of the unsung heroes of the American avant-garde.
Morris, who died of lung cancer in 2013, possessed a singular voice on an unusual instrument: his cracked, enigmatic cornet playing built on Miles Davis’s minimalistic trumpet, but added a bluesy edge honed, perhaps, by his experiences as a U.S. army soldier during the Vietnam War. It was on a conceptual level, however, that Morris truly advanced contemporary music, by devising a system of “conduction”—his shorthand term for “conducted improvisation”—that allowed complex free-form structures to emerge from simple musical motifs.
As a long-time bandmate of Morris’s, Horvitz watched Morris develop his approach first-hand, and will present two different looks at the cornetist’s legacy during the Meeting’s initial night. First up will be a loose re-creation of Horvitz’s influential trio with Morris and drummer Bobby Previte, this time with JP Carter playing trumpet and festival organizer Dylan van der Schyff in the percussionist’s chair. After that, Horvitz will lead a nine-piece band of Vancouver all-stars through some of his own compositions, using Morris’s conduction techniques.
“Conduction involves someone who is like a conductor, who stands in front of the band and waves his or her arms around,” Horvitz explains, on the line from his Seattle home. “But the conductor is giving signals to the musicians that are structural or musical ideas—things that control the improvisation might be the best way to put it. You might tell the musicians to play a certain thing over and over again, or you might tell one musician to imitate another musician, or you might tell a musician to play a long tone.
“Those are some of the more obvious things, but it’s considerably more nuanced than that,” he continues. “In the case of my conduction, I also take little snippets of written music and tell them to play those, or transpose them or things like that. So in my bands—particularly the one I have in Seattle, which is larger than the group I’ll be using in Vancouver—I can set up riffs from my composition against other riffs from the composition and have them hook up in ways that are really quite skewed. It’s surprising how few hand signals you need to open up a huge amount of possibilities.”
Although it’s an adventurous approach to music, Horvitz notes that it’s not without precedent in American jazz—or, for that matter, in the visual arts. Conduction allows a bandleader to superimpose musical materials in the same way that cubist painters used multiple perspectives within a single image.
“That’s a great way to put it,” he says. “At the same time, it’s also an extension of what people like Count Basie and Charles Mingus did.…It’s like what we used to call ‘riff-based’ music, but the riffs aren’t necessarily jazz, and they’re not always in time.”
Morris isn’t the only musical innovator who’ll be honoured during the 2014 Vancouver Improvised Music Meeting: the event will close on Saturday night with an appearance by Sun Ra’s Star System, which brings the late bandleader’s music into the 21st century through live electronic processing. Also on the program will be a rare solo appearance by piano virtuoso Paul Plimley, music-and-dance encounters with movement innovators Ziyian Kwan and Jay Hirabayashi, an avant-guitar summit with Tony Wilson and Barking Sphinx mainstay Ron Samworth, and more.