Over the next couple of weeks, composer and cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum will develop a new body of music working with a nine-piece ensemble of some of his closest collaborators. Titled “The Ambiguity Manifesto,” the music is designed to blur the lines between composition and improvisation, between solo and ensemble, between different genres, timbres, and instrumentations. In a cultural moment when so much is left or right, right or wrong, in or out, “The Ambiguity Manifesto” celebrates the beauty and necessity of the unknown and the indefinable, the enigmatic and the subversive, the boundary-crossing Trickster spirit.
Bynum and company will kick off this new project at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday and Thursday this week. We caught up with Bynum to talk with the impetus behind the new music, and his many hats as a composer-performer-writer-teacher-organizer.
The Jazz Gallery: From your moving tribute to Muhal Richard Abrams in the New Yorker to your stewardship of Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Foundation, it is apparent that your life is marked by a engagement with the creative music of the AACM. How did you come to be acquainted with them and their work?
Taylor Ho Bynum: I first became aware of the AACM back in high school. One of my very first mentors is the trombonist and tuba player Bill Lowe, who does the honor of playing in my ensemble still, and will be with us at the Gallery. I met him when I was 15 or 16 years old, and he had worked with Muhal Richard Abrams and Henry Threadgill. He wasn’t an AACM member, but he worked closely with several of those musicians—so that’s the first exposure I got to that creative music practice. And then of course I went to Wesleyan as an undergraduate, where I came under Anthony Braxton’s extraordinary influence. And so, that then was a life-changer for me, and I’ve been working with him ever since. My understanding of that history and that collective came out of some very personal relationships, and my embrace of both that musical aesthetic and the organizational aesthetic, and the self determination, and the various messages of that organization that go up above and beyond musical practice.
TJG:How do see you the role of non-profit organizations, much like that one, in the music world that we’re living in today? As it seems to be in the midst of a lack of funding and, as you made reference to some of your liner notes, a flux in the way that we deal with recorded music and how we value it.
THB: I think I’ve been lucky to have mentors, like those gentlemen—Bill, Anthony—who’ve always been very aware of the need to apply the music lessons of non-hierarchical leadership and individual initiative being not at odds, but actually in concert with collective development and ensemble understanding. And I think those things need to be applied past the music itself, and really, past even the art field but especially the arts field. We need to organize ourselves as creatively as we play music [laughs]. You know what I mean?
I think the music presents lessons on how to do that that we too rarely look to, and I think we take for granted that we work as collaborators and dedicate ourselves to working with the people we love, and innovating and experimenting. We take for granted that we’re going to do that in our music but we really need to do that in our survival practice as a whole.
And so for me, I see the two as very related. I think that in an ideal world, I would love to not have to organizing [laughs] and have, you know, really wonderful competent people partnering with to do that. It’s sad that we haven’t lived in that ideal world. So I think having some skills and inclinations towards that, I’ve found myself really wearing those multiple hats and finding that to make possible the things that I want to have happening as an artist, I have to also step up sometimes as a presenter, or a producer, or an organizer, to make those things happen. But again, I think that’s always been a part of the tradition of this music.
TJG: The advocacy?
THB: The advocacy and the self-determination. You know, Duke Ellington didn’t make enough money to support his orchestra from the orchestra gigs. That was a choice he made because he had income coming from pop songs. One has to navigate within the industry in such a way as to support our creative practice and that’s always going to be a balance, and that’s always going to be a related but different identity that we need to keep fighting for. We need more good people as partners engaged in that. I would urge anyone who’s interested to consider that – it’s not necessarily the most [laughs] financially rewarding task but I think it really is vital when it’s done in partnership with artists, and artists definitely value that.
I think it’s also good for me as an artist, having done those others kinds of jobs and run an organizations and having produced festivals and having done all that—it really helps me learn how to converse with and partner with people coming from that field. I think too often, it’s easy in a field where, as you said, everything is so under-resourced, there end up being, even, antagonistic relationships between people who really naturally should be allies, y’know? In terms of artists and presenters, or in terms of artists and each other, or in terms of presenters and each other. We really all should be fighting together in this, but it’s easy, in a capitalist economy with limited resources, to have it become a competitive thing when in fact, there are ways in which we really could be helping each other out across the board. And that’s something that I think the music demonstrates at its best, and we have to learn how to translate out of the musical world into the practical one.
TJG: Besides this potential antagonism that comes from limited resources, what are the other big difficulties in this organizational world? How can we more democratically approach these problems?
THB: Oh, I don’t know—anarcho-communalist Marxist revolution? [laughs] I would say this—I think at their best, everybody does this. And I have to remember to do this myself: remember to take the same principles of personal and individual integrity and spiritual engagement and collective belief that we take in our music at its best, and really try to apply that to our lives at large. And when we really try to do that, we do the best we can.
I think, in a complicated global moment far beyond the under-resourcing of the arts field—which is perhaps the least important issue facing the world today—if we could solve that [laughs]. The same principles we would need to approach that would be the same one with which we would approach these larger issues. I think, to remember to live one’s life, make one’s music, make one’s choices with compassion and empathy and love and communication and joy and fun, and all the things that we want to put in our music—we need to take that into our lives and model that as, this is, human beings can be better.
It may rarely happen, but at its best and if nothing else, we can try to do something beautiful that doesn’t do harm. And I think that’s why the arts exist, among many other reasons, but especially in moments as complicated as the current one, there is something powerful about being reminded that.
TJG: Conversely, you’ve spent some time writing for a variety of outlets, including The New Yorker’s Culture Blog, as well as doing an bunch of teaching. How do all these endeavours interact with your work as a musician?
THB: I was very, very lucky to have met mentors who so radically changed my life, and I think with that in mind.
And it’s funny, recognizing now that I’m getting older—well, I’m not that old yet—but I’m getting old enough and getting close to the age that my mentors were when I met them and the students that I’m teaching were the age I was, you know? It’s funny, all of a sudden, to wake up and say, “holy shit,” that generation has passed. And now they’re the revered elders, and I’m the middle-aged dude trying to get it across to other generation, and then there’s younger generation. It’s a funny realization that I’ve had recently.
But I think I was so lucky to have had extraordinary mentors who brought me into this and who supported my work that I really feel both an interest and a responsibility to try to continue that as a teacher. And I think writing is related to that as well. I think those of us who are lucky enough to find some platform as artists, I think it’s so important to have musicians talk about the music themselves, y’know? I think there is a wonderful role for critics and scholars and academics, but I think there is a crucial and often undervalued role of musicians speaking for themselves. And looking at Anthony [Braxton’s] example, or George Lewis’ example, or Derek Bailey’s example, or Art Taylor’s example—I think those were such crucial contributions to the discussion and really raising the discursive standards of this music, and really having informed conversations about it.
So for me, it’s funny. Those are the things—the administrative, organizational responsibilities—I’m not sure… I think in an ideal world, I’m not sure I would do that [chuckles]. But I would still teach, I would still write, because those are things I really feel that I really enjoy and very much continue those traditions of the people from which I learned.
TJG: You are presenting your quintet and nonet at The Jazz Gallery later this month. Do you find yourself adjusting in mindset when playing with these variously sized groups? I’ve realized you like very big bands.
THB: I do, which is a fairly economically disastrous choice in the current environment [chuckles].
What these gigs are doing is that I’m premiering a new book of music, which I’m calling “The Ambiguity Manifesto.” It’s a set of modular compositions that I’ve written specifically for this 9 piece group but also wrote intentionally in such a way that it could be broken down into smaller elements if needed. So I was writing both with the creative and practical consideration—I wanna be able to write a book of music that I could explore, and explore these ideas, and explore the modular nature of this composition with any number of musicians between four and nine. So basically, if I get a gig, I’m going to call nine people and see who’s available. And that way, it’s a great way to explore different kinds of instrumental possibilities. So I really feel like—with the exception of Tomo Fujiwara, the drummer, who I’m really wholly dependent on—I could really get me, Tomo, and any three or four of the other musicians in this ensemble and we can make this music happen. Ideally we get all of them, and we have all nine. But I wanted to write a book of music that would offer different avenues of explorations, and would always be shifting depending on which personnel, which instruments, what number of people were available at any one time – so that actually become one of the creative, generative factors and restrictions of the piece, if that makes sense.
These Jazz Gallery gigs gave me a chance to explore with a smaller subset. And this new group, the 9-tet, is an outgrowth of my sextet, which has been together for a long time. We’re working a couple newer musicians into the fold, so the quintet gives me a chance to really—I really got carried away with the low-end rhythm section[…] it’ll be really fun, how can you not?—it really gives me a chance to explore that. And on the purely selfish point, y’know, often with with bigger groups and especially more compositional projects, a lot of one’s energy goes to the bandleading, composing side. So this was almost a present to myself, as I get to do a lot of playing as the one horn player over all this wonderful low end, and really scratch the Bill Dixon itch of that trumpet or cornet on top of, like, four basses or three tubas [laughs]. But then, get the whole band there on Thursday night to really dig into the new compositon, and then we’ll be playing in Hartford the following night, and recording it over the weekend.
Taylor Ho Bynum leads his Quintet and 9-tette at The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday, February 28, and Thursday, March 1, 2018, respectively. The Quintet features Mr. Bynum on cornet, Tomeka Reid on cello, Stomu Takeishi on electric bass, Ken Filiano on acoustic bass, and Tomas Fuijwara on drums. The 9-tette features the members of the Quintet, plus Jim Hobbs on alto saxophone, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone, Bill Lowe on bass trombone/tuba, and Mary Halvorson on guitar. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.