Jazz and improvisation have gone together like bread and butter since the first player stepped out to blow a lead. There is something about the music that just lends itself to allowing musicians the freedom to explore all a piece of music has to offer. However, it's jazz's free-form nature which seems to have worked against its integration with orchestral works. Although modern composers have drawn upon many other elements of contemporary music and technologies, orchestral and jazz haven't seemed to be able to find the comfort zone where they can blend easily.
At least that's how Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris saw it, and what prompted him to develop his system of "playing" an ensemble called conduction. Conduction is a serious of gestures, including facial expression, that allow a conductor to generate notation for his performers on the fly based on factors like what the audience is feeling, who is playing in the band that night, the backgrounds of the musicians involved, (musically and otherwise), and of course whatever is needed to fulfill the emotional requirements of the music. There are hand gestures to change the rhythm, have sections repeated, have an instrument play in a higher or lower register, to silence, and to control volume. Needless to say, in order for a band to successfully carry off this type of performance, in which there are no written scores or arrangements, everybody involved has to be completely familiar with the vocabulary of gestures and be skilled enough a player to keep up with what are rapid fire changes.
One such collective of musicians who are emulating Butch Morris are Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, who are set to release Making Love To The Dark Ages, on the Live Wired Music, March 17, '09, a disc comprised of pieces produced using conduction. Handling the conduction duties for Burnt Sugar is Greg Tate, and because this is a studio performance his job is also expanded to included those post production duties of a producer as well. However, he does more than just add a little reverb here, or clean up the pitch there, he takes full advantage of the broad spectrum of electronic music, sampling, and other "non-played" instruments now available to bands and musicians to round out the sound.
This all sounds like it could be a recipe for disaster; a mishmash of sounds that end up being discordant at best and absolute hell at its worst. Yet when you listen to pieces like "Chains And Water, A, B, and C", they sound like they have been as carefully orchestrated as any piece of music with full notation and separate arrangements for each instrument. Each part, from the vocals to the electronic effects, sound and feel as if they were carefully rehearsed for days in advance. In fact, before I read any of the accompanying press package that came with the disc, I wouldn't have been able to tell from listening the extent to which improvisation was involved in the creation of any of the pieces.
Now part of that comes from the players all buying into the system and learning the vocabulary of gestures that Tate uses. However it also necessitates having musicians of some skill, ones who are able to do things like change direction on a dime without missing a beat or inverting the rhythmic pattern of a song without it turning chaotic and confusing. For those who are able to rise to this challenge, they are awarded with the gift of freedom like they've probably not experienced before in a large group format. For instead of simply playing their part in the charts, they are able to explore their instrument's potential within the parameters allowed by which ever gesture has been employed by Tate at the time. Since those are everything from repeat that phrase again, to repeat that phrase but this time do it with a Latin beat, it's not what you could call limiting.
Now lest you think this is just unorganized chaos with everybody simply playing what they want, the music is developed along themes. So each track on Making Love To The Dark Ages builds from a consistent motif established prior to it being played. Therefore, the song always starts the same, where it ends up traveling to, on the other hand, is another story. What makes this music so intoxicating to listen to is the surprises awaiting the listener while accompanying the musicians on their journey.
The title track, "Making Love To The Dark Ages", is Tate's response to eight years of a Bush administration, which created a world in which selfishness, inequity, and cruelty were commonplace. While at times the song descends into a wild cacophony that reflects the turmoil and ugliness of those behaviours, it also carries within it the sound of resilience, the belief the world can and will recover from those years. Two instruments, or sounds, stood out in particular for me in this piece because of their contrasting influences on the overall tone; an improvised scat vocal line insisted on being heard in spite of everything else going on around it and the metallic sounds of electronic music which verged on being annoying because of its constant demands to be heard.
On the one hand there was the most human of all musical sounds, the human voice, and on the other, there was its antithesis, the sound of a machine, the voice of all that couldn't care less who was washed away or swept under in the course of events. Between these two polar opposites swirled the confusing sounds of other instruments that began to feel like the state of chaos formed by the pull both forces could exert on people. During the past eight years it has sometimes felt like we were being forced to choose between the inexorable pull of technology and compassion and caring, instead of finding a way for them to work in harmony, and this song managed to bring those feelings to life.
Perhaps this is what's truly most amazing about Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber's CD Making Love To The Dark Ages, the fact they are able to convey complex ideas and emotions through music in such a way the listener is able to relate to it on their own terms. You don't need to understand how they are making their to music to know it is powerful and amazing. However, it does make it all the more amazing when you do. Improvisation in music has come a long way from a horn player standing up an riffing a few bars around the theme of a song, and Burnt Sugar Arkestra Chamber are one of the most accomplished ensembles working in that field today.