Sounds Heard: Taylor Ho Bynum—Navigation

[Ed. Note: Last week at New Music USA, we hosted Caio Higginson from the Welsh Music Information Centre, Tŷ Cerdd, as part of the staff exchange program of the International Association of Music Information Centres. During the week, I arranged for Caio to visit a variety of music organizations in the city as well as to hear live performances of American music every night in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera to (le) poisson rouge, the Jazz Standard, and the Church of St. Luke in the Fields. Caio also worked with each of our departments here, learning about what we do and how we do it. As part of a way to understand what we do at NewMusicBox, I put a pile of new CD releases in front of him and told him he could write about one of them for us if he was so moved. After an afternoon listening bonanza, Navigation by the Taylor Ho Bynum’s 7-tette, inspired these thoughts from him.—FJO]

Navigation
Taylor Ho Bynum 7-tette: Navigation
(firehouse 12 FH-12-04-01-019)
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet; Jim Hobbs: alto saxophone;
Bill Lowe: bass trombone, tuba; Mary Halvorson: electric guitar;
Ken Filiano: acoustic bass; Tomas Fujiwara and Chad Taylor: drums, vibraphone

Navigation, Taylor Ho Bynum’s recent CD release, seems particularly relevant to my own experience of visiting New York this week. I can bare no claim to navigating the airplane over the Atlantic, of course, but to me at least, this improvisatory multi-sectioned work reflects the adventure of experiencing a specific city for the first time.

Bynum has laid this work out in six movements—ISH, WUK, ZADE, TRIST, MANCH, and KID—each with some predetermined elements planned, but from there the music relies on the independence of the performers as it weaves from one scenario to another. These movements can be played in any order, simultaneously, and even multiple times within a single performance, as they are in the two realizations featured on this Firehouse 12 2-CD release. Diagrams printed on the digipack outline the specific paths taken.

In the first track, MANCH, Tim Hobbs’s alto saxophone and Bill Lowe’s tuba spar with one another before Mary Halvorson’s electric guitar and Tomas Fujiwara’s snare drum and cymbals kick in; it reminded me of my arrival to this city—e.g. depending heavily on maps at first and gradually feeling more confident of where I was going. This sets the stage for the second track, MANCH-ISH, which, after the heaviness of the proceeding interplay between the musicians, sounds relatively tranquil. It begins with an electric guitar solo that made me think of the sounds of dial-up internet connections from the 1990s. As a backdrop, bell-like percussion sounds kick in occasionally; although it might not have been the musicians’ intent, to me it felt like the subway rumbling underneath me from time to time! But there is a constant gradual build-up to a flurry of passion from Lowe’s saxophone and then Bynum’s cornet. The MANCH movement reappears on the last track of the second disc. In that performance there is a calm sense of confidence, with the saxophone taking the lead accompanied by the cornet while in the background the guitar lays back and strums away as if just observing the world go by.

The ZADE and WUK movements are each performed twice on the first CD. In the first performance of ZADE-WUK, the vibraphone (played by Fujiwara) is very prominent in deciding the path that the sax and cornet then follow. The subtlety of the vibraphone and bass (played by Ken Filiano) contrasts very effectively with the harsh and brash interferences, particularly from the guitar and tuba. The second performance, which opens with a bleak bowed bass solo, eventually builds to an ensemble interplay that has an almost traditional jazz feel to it, but not for long. In this performance, however, the navigation of the journey seems clearer and more confident due to its familiar landmarks.

There is an additional performance of ZADE on its own on the second CD. Here is a barren and sobering version of the movement with low and hanging sounds from the bass countered by both low and screeching expressions by the cornet which create a weird sense of uneasiness. About midway through, the saxophone enters and the tensions that had been building up to that point finally evaporate.

Throughout the piece, Bynum doesn’t allow the listener to dwell too long in any moment, choosing to steer back and forth from the traditional to newer waters. In my view, of the six movements it is TRIST and MANCH that reflect the traditional and fond essence of travelling and the confidence in your navigation that allows for a pleasurable journey.

In the first performance of TRIST there’s almost a sense of a strong, cold wind blowing across the landscape, but shelter is provided in the form of the guitar and warmth from the bass and drums. These foundations allow the performance of the wind instruments to thrive in a carnival-like atmosphere, yet at the end we are still made aware of the raging storm. But in the second performance of TRIST, there is no lingering threat from Mother Nature; this is reflected in a colorful cornet solo. It is the wind instruments rather than the guitar that take the initiative at the beginning of this performance. Those festive sax and cornet elements are more subdued in this performance, allowing the guitar to take center stage midway through the track.

The KID-WUK movement begins with the guitar and cornet playing in tandem, both shadowing the other. Suddenly the bass trombone appears (played by Lowe) which gradually builds a sense of tension. The cornet plays over it, responding differently throughout the movement, sometimes challenging the tension and sometimes embracing it.

From the beginning, this album challenged ideas that I’ve had about jazz and made me realize that there is a lot that I have to learn. I’ve listened to it many times during the last five days, and though it is a cliché to say it, every time it evokes a different emotion in me. This is actually the intention of Taylor Ho Bynum. In addition to having recorded two versions of most movements, he states in the CD’s program notes that he “wants to ask listeners to consider the composition as a set of possibilities rather than a fixed document.” And it is just that.

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