Improvisational freedom and structured composition might seem like an unlikely combination, but for Taylor Ho Bynum, the two go hand in hand. Bynum’s virtuosic yet playful cornet style has made him a favorite of forward-thinking artists from Anthony Braxton to Cecil Taylor, and in his own work, he strives to write music that gives his band as much flexibility as possible. His latest release, Navigation (Firehouse 12 Records), is a four-album set that showcases some of his most improvisational work yet. The album chronicles four performances of the work, two with his working sextet and two with an expanded 7-tette, and the modular, collaborative nature of the composition makes Navigation a collection of four very different performances.
It’s a typically ambitious move from Bynum, whose work has also included collaborations with dancers and visual artists as well as solo tours conducted entirely on his bicycle. On Saturday, November 9th, he’ll perform Navigation live at The Jazz Gallery with his sextet, which features saxophonist Jim Hobbs, trombonist/tubist Bill Lowe, guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. We caught up with Bynum by phone to talk about the album, his influences, and what listeners can expect from Saturday’s show.
The Jazz Gallery: Why four performances of the same composition? How’d the piece come together?
Taylor Ho Bynum: I always try to give musicians in my group as much freedom as possible, but I’ve generally done it with a relatively fixed road map. I compose material A and then we improvise and they can take it wherever they want, but eventually we’re going to get to area B. After [2012’s Apparent Distance], I really had realized [the musicians in the group] were kind of busting at those seams. I really wanted to give the musicians the freedom not just to improvise in the moment, but really to make choices in the compositional material so the musicians themselves can make the choices of what the road map is. There’s not a fixed road map; instead, it’s sort of a playground of opportunity. There are all these different places we know we can go together as an ensemble, and each of the musicians is responsible for where we can go next.
TJG: You’ve also released the four performances in different formats—there’s a CD and LP version of the set, and half of them were recorded live. What inspired this particular combination?
THB: First of all, with the recording industry in such bizarre flux these days anyway, there’s a sort of curious “what sells better, LPs or CDs or digital downloads” [debate]—there’s an aspect of it that’s just controlled science experiment. But I also wanted to make listeners aware of the fact that they were listening to a recording in a way. I really wanted each to play up the idea that recording is always kind of totally ephemeral and is in some ways at odds with the idea of improvised music. And it’s funny—in jazz, we fetishize this frozen moment, but the point of the music is actually always that it changes, so I wanted to encourage people to look through this composition through four different changes rather than listening to one version of it four times. And by putting it in different formats, that was to make people aware of the artificiality of the recording in general. It can show up any which way!
TJG: You’ve worked with some avant-garde heavyweights—Anthony Braxton for one. Do you differentiate much between your solo and sideman work?
THB: To some extent. Leading a project always brings a certain set of responsibilities and a certain focus that you need. Obviously a lot of the idea of this collage structure and modular form is deeply indebted to Anthony. But I’m sort of proud of the fact that my music doesn’t sound anything like his. I don’t really want it to, because I play with him and his stuff is perfect. I don’t want to sound like a Braxton clone, but what I’m interested in doing is trying to incorporate some of his ideas into a format that uses my own compositional voice.
And not just Braxton—this piece definitely bears the imprint of Bill Dixon, who is a real influence of mine, and people who I haven’t worked with as closely but who I love as composers, like Henry Threadgill or Wadada Leo Smith. There are clear points of structural inspiration that I took from these composers. I’m not trying to make it sound like them, but I’m always particularly interested in the structural innovations of people: how they balance composition and improvisation, what means of notation they use. Sometimes I hold that as a more direct influence than the way the music actually sounds.
TJG: Do you see yourself coming out of any specific tradition?
THB: We all have such loaded relationships with the word “jazz,” but for me, the things of that tradition that I find most interesting is, first of all, the Duke Ellington tradition of writing music for specific individuals, and using that as a means structuring improvisation—sort of using band-leading as a compositional device, making the choice of your musicians part of your compositions and really thinking about the individual styles while you’re writing. That’s very much part of my process.
And I’m especially indebted to the AACM—the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians [a Chicago-based collective associated with Threadgill, Leo Smith, Braxton, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, among others]. Especially that first generation of AACM: such an intensely focused and dedicated path of experimentation, really opening up the idea that it’s not about staying in one genre but respecting all these different traditions and respecting the continuums of those musics while looking to expand it. That for me continues to be one of my real aesthetic touchstones.
TJG: So what can listeners expect to hear when you hit at the Gallery?
THB: Hopefully a little bit of everything! As I said, what I always enjoy the most with this band is how ridiculously fantastic all the musicians are and how really, really, really lucky I feel to get to work with all these people and have them play my music. Because they’re all not just virtuoso players but really unique and individual players. I just always have so much fun being completely surprised by my own band, and that’s something I make sure not to take for granted.
I’m really proud of this recording. This is the most ambitious thing I’ve done in terms of scale. It’s sort of insane to put out a four-album set these days. But it’s all really just to remind people how special the experience of listening to live music is. It’s funny, I was reading a thing recently about how a hundred and five years ago every time you listened to music it would be live music, and these days a tiny fraction of less than one percent is actually live music. There’s something about this kind of music that really is about reminding ourselves of the immediacy of the moment, doing something that could only happen in that room, with these people, with you, on that day.
That’s just extraordinary, very important.
The Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet, which features saxophonist Jim Hobbs, trombonist/tubist Bill Lowe, guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, performs at The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, November 9th. Sets are at 9:00 and 11:00 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here.