Thanks to his old Chicago avant connections, Wadada Leo Smith works magic from his wizardly throne out at CalArts. The latest puff and flash was the manifestation, at his Creative Music Festival two weeks ago, of both Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians founder Muhal Richard Abrams and “conduction” theoretician Butch Morris. I was out of town for Abrams plus GO: Organic Orchestra on Friday (damn), but caught Morris on Saturday.
And he’s a rare catch. Like so many groundbreakers (Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus), Morris had to leave Los Angeles to get noticed; it’d been 35 years since he hit a local stage. The occasion was enhanced by the choice of opener: the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, founded by the late Horace Tapscott, which was Morris’ gang when he was a young trumpeter.
Under the baton/soprano sax of a thin and swaying Michael Session, the 16-member edition of the often much larger Arkestra was absolutely busting with vigor and soul. Locally familiar Ark standards such as the lumbering riff/fugue “Lino’s Pad,” the soul/Latin waltz “The Isle of Cecilia,” and the tango “The Great House,” set up with its floating intro, made us remember what a gift Tapscott secreted in South L.A. -- a rooted modernism that now stands as classic. When Dwight Trible came out to wail/howl the finale, wringing every drop of passion from the undulating childhood allegory “Little Africa,” hairs were raised and eyes wet; nothing remained to say. But fresh in our ears’ memory stuck a staggering array of exceptional efforts: Fundi Lejon on warm, flowing French horn; young Koran Harrison and younger Makela Session on polyrhythmic drums; Tracy Caldwell on clean-cutting alto sax; Nate Morgan inserting perfect rhythmic shivs on piano; Maia shrieking and singing between notes and kicking up her knee in the throes of furious abandon on flute; Michael Session’s sax, as always, ripping gashes in the ceiling so we could see the stars outside. I’d name everybody if I thought I’d get their names right.
If Butch Morris, with his mostly student 30-plus-member ensemble anchored by Vinny Golia’s veteran bass clarinet, couldn’t rise above that, no fault attaches. Anyway, he was going for something entirely different. His “conduction” method combines spontaneity with prewritten music; he raised sound from this or that segment of the stage with hand gestures. Such an approach relies on the mood and inspiration of the moment, not to mention a certain familiarity with the technique. And what emanated from the group subconscious on this occasion was a slightly restless sea that never quite broke into a storm. Posing like Poseidon sans Trident, Morris riled up surface ripples, head-bobbing rhythms, kvetching counterpoints, side-to-side rivalries; the music briefly punched up and flurried without altering the overall static mood. Then it pretty much stopped, unresolved. I would’ve liked to hear it after one more week of rehearsal.
The evening overall: Exciting music plus history. A combination that worked -- largely because preconceptions couldn’t fight reality. (Greg Burk)