Concert review: Butch Morris and the Lucky Cheng Orchestra’s musical adventure

Date: Monday, November 7, 2011
Venue: Lucky Cheng (NY)
Reviewed by Matt Cole

On Monday, the 7th of November, Butch Morris led his newest project, the Lucky Cheng Orchestra, in a two-set conducted musical adventure at Lucky Cheng’s (the current residence of Nublu) in Lower Manhattan, the latest in a weekly residency, which started in early September, and will last until the end of November. This night’s players included Tom Swafford on violin, Nicole Federici on viola, Meaghan Burke on cello, Areni Agbabian on voice, Christoph Knoche on bass clarinet, flute, and harmonica, Doug Wieselman on clarinet, Stephanie Richards on trumpet, Brendan Ross and Octavia Romano on guitar, Tom Zlabinger on double bass, Joe Hertenstein and Kenny Wollesen on percussion, and William MacIntyre on vibraphone. This night’s show was also videotaped by the BBC for a news segment.


While he started out playing cornet, notably with David Murray, Lawrence ‘Butch’ Morris is probably best known for creating spontaneous musical constructions/compositions in real time via live conduction. Over the last 26 years, Mr. Morris has led nearly 200 conductions and many workshops all over the world, including the Chorus of Poets (all spoken word) and the jazzy, dancy Nublu Orchestra, which features many of the downtown NYC scene’s brightest musical lights (full disclosure: this writer has played with the Nublu Orchestra for the last year and a half, though he wouldn’t quite describe himself this way). Mr. Morris uses a system of sign language to convey to the usually 10-15 musicians in his orchestra what to do and when to do it; the musicians decide how to do it. For example, Butch might give the sign for graphical information: he waves his baton around in various shapes and patterns, and the musicians will then create a musical interpretation of the signs; or he might signal a couple musicians to repeat a phrase, while conducting several others in long tones. If the band gets into a particularly good groove, Mr. Morris might signal it as a Memory (i.e. Memory 1, 2…N), and have the musicians return to it later in the set. On rare occasions, there might be a few pre-written lines that the band will play at various points, but for the most part, the 45-minute sets are totally improvised on the spot.



Butch’s current project, the Lucky Cheng Orchestra, has a decidedly avant-classical feel to it; this is not surprising, given that many of the musicians are accomplished classical players, and that the instrumentation is much like a Baroque-sized chamber orchestra (plus drums and electric instruments). The first set of the night started out with sparse, eerie, dreamy vibraphone; slowly the other instruments were conducted in: strings, guitars, percussion, and winds. Once a multi-layered texture had built up and was self-sustaining, Mr. Morris conducted the strings, winds, and vocalist in a variety of musical shapes. After doing several ‘circles’ (in which he traces his baton around the band, which each member playing if they’re not, or stopping if they are, as the baton points to them), which punctuated the dreamy, trancy texture with splashes of business, a lovely interplay between the vibraphone, and Kenny Wollesen’s steel drum emerging under sheets of strings. From this, a Middle Eastern/Jewish theme emerged, and Butch conducted the band in several variations thereof. Several minutes into this, Tom Swafford began playing some lovely violin lines over/through the various permutations that the orchestra was playing. After some more conductions, another Middle Eastern/Jewish theme emerged, followed by a medium-fast rhythm. At this point, Doug Wieselman took the lead on clarinet, while the band built on the rhythm(s) it had just created. After Stephanie Richards added trumpet to all this, everyone except the violin dropped out, and then slowly came back in; first the rhythm section, then the strings, winds, vocals, guitars, and rest of the percussion.

After some more graphical information and circles, the first theme re-emerged, and then melted into a dreamy ambient texture reminiscent of the beginning of the set, with hints of the theme bubbling up every now and again. The band crescendoed into ambient chaos, with the various Middle Eastern/Jewish themes popping up into the mix, and then all of a sudden the Main Theme emerged, an ominous sequence of eighth-notes in E minor which has popped up in every show this run. The bass and rhythm continued this, while Butch conducted the strings and winds. Brendan Ross began to play an intense lead over all of this, was soon joined by Doug Wieselman, and after a few circles, the entire band landed on the Main Theme except Brendan (who kept his own lead going). On these notes, the first set ended.



Kenny Wollesen rang in the second set with a gong, and a quick rhythm ensued, with the lower strings being conducted over this. Gradually, the rest of the band joined in the conduction, mostly dropped out, and after a few conducted circles, the low strings were again playing over the insistent rhythm produced by Wollesen and Joe Hertenstein. This was followed by more conduction, graphical information alternated with Brendan Hill’s now-percussive guitar. By now, Mr. Morris had marked several of these group rhythms as Memories, and alternated the band between them, and threw in various shapes and other conductions while dropping individual musicians and sections in and out. Then, all of a sudden, a Decay (in which Butch signals the band to hit a note/chord strongly, and fade out slowly), and the Main Theme emerged in the bass and violin, while the rest of the band continued to be conducted in Decaying notes.

After some graphical conduction, the Main Theme emerged even stronger, followed by more Decays, string and wind conduction, a return to the slow textures of Memory 4, and some fragments of the Middle Eastern/Jewish themes. The percussionists went wild, and an eerie group improvisation grew, and then coalesced around one of the main Middle Eastern/Jewish themes from the first set. After more conduction and variation, the bad strongly re-stated the Main Theme, and ended on some shapes, and a Decay.

There were two brief encores: the first was a series of graphical shapes, decays, and graphical shapes again; the second saw the band jump back into the Memory 1 vamp from the second set, expand on it, return to it, and end on a circle.

The Lucky Cheng Orchestra (with some slight variation in personnel depending on who’s available on any given week), has been playing together for over two months now, and it shows. The band’s playing has gotten quite coherent, and they have clearly gotten quite good at using Mr. Morris’ conductions to make interesting music. One audience member with whom this writer conversed likened the sound to that of Frank Zappa’s classical compositions, but spontaneously constructed.

The Lucky Cheng Orchestra plays two more Mondays at Lucky Cheng’s (24 1st Ave b/t 1st and 2nd Streets in Manhattan), with sets starting promptly at 8 and 9:30pm., and this writer strongly recommends that you check this project out before its current run ends, or if you can’t make it, make sure to check out his next endeavor, which will run Mondays at The Stone from January through March