‘BROWN BUTTERFLY’ IS A NEW JAZZ ALBUM INSPIRED BY MUHAMMAD ALI’S BOXING STYLE. BATTLES SPOKE TO ITS COMPOSER CRAIG HARRIS. SEE THE FULL FEATURE IN ISSUE TWO OF OUR PRINT MAGAZINE OUT NOW.
“Ali’s entrance music was Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come,” New York jazz musician Craig Harris informs Battles, “and change is always going on. Ali improvised at the highest level; he changed style consistently. And that’s the key to African excellence. African Americans are in a constant state of improvisation. When my car gets stopped, I have to improvise that situation.” This, says Harris, is the link between the most famous boxer of all time – the ‘Double Greatest’ – and the improvisational, experimental jazz greats: “Like Charlie Parker, Max Roach and John Coltrane.”
Harris, 64, is a staple of the New York jazz avant-garde. He was trombonist for Sun Ra’s Arkestra throughout the 1970s, he’s played with seminal jazz figures including
Art Ensemble of Chicago founder Lester Bowie, and boasts five previous albums of his own. Brown Butterfly is his new triple vinyl concept LP that puts the boxing style of Muhammad Ali to music.
Track names include Bundini/Ali, Rope-a-Dope (after Ali’s favourite tactic of tiring opponents out and luring them in) and The Ali Shuffle Interpolation. The composition was originally performed at New York’s City College, featuring a large cast of musicians and dancers.
“Mr Harris is known for his precise and sensitive melding of musical styles,” wrote The New York Times’ critic in attendance, continuing: “his score is a robust wonder, a rainbow tissue of world music, jazz, blues and popular period music.”
Brown Butterfly’s four suites of contemporary jazz have recently been recorded for posterity, and the project is being released as a triple vinyl record for winter 2018. Brown Butterfly will be available as a double CD too, plus “downloads and stuff” as Harris puts it, and the show will tour worldwide with specially produced video footage to accompany the live performance.
Brown Butterfly’s sleeve artwork uses the photography of Peter Angelo Simon [editor’s note: you can see full images in the corresponding print magazine article]. The portraits of Muhammad Ali are taken from the book and exhibition Fighters Heaven, originally photographed by Peter in 1974 but not published until 2017.
Brown Butterfly is actually not the first boxing/experimental jazz crossover album, Harris informs us: “Miles Davis wrote the album Jack Johnson. Joe Zawinul from the band The Weather Report was a boxer. Joe Frazier had an act called The Knockouts. Ali thought he was a better singer than Frazier, and had Sam Cooke produce a few tracks for him. They even released them! Two 45s!”
But Brown Butterfly is perhaps the first boxing-inspired musical project to feature drum ’n’ bass (the ‘popular period music’ mentioned by The New York Times’ review). “I thought drum ’n’ bass was so appropriate, as it’s an innovation in itself. It’s R&B music from the 1960s and 70s sped up,” Harris says, adding: “A good way to expand the audience for the music is to start working in other genres.”
And he’s adapted his own style for new fresh challenges, in the manner of Cassius Clay himself. “Style and technique transcend the physical,” Harris says.
Images from Fighter’s Heaven are available to purchase as limited edition photographic prints from David Hill Gallery, London.
The digital download version of Brown Butterfly is out now on Bandcamp.