a column by
Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet ©2013 Scott Friedlander 2013
I master pieces of it. – Gertrude Stein
Composition and improvisation, or some things just like them, get us through the day, a dialogue between the comfort and irritation of the known, the ritualized, the planned, and the possibility and delivery of a subtle alteration or sudden development (What was that sound?) that arises in the midst of the feared-to-be-predictable. Every living moment is balanced between the known and the unknown, the structured and the structure-free, and jazz has historically provided a forum for focusing on that relationship, on listening to the shifting nuances in the dialogue.
Taylor Ho Bynum has just released a work called Navigation (Firehouse 12) that’s particularly focused on the possibility of the moment and the relationships between the composed and the improvised, focused even on the unpredictable consequence of an instant’s choice between the known and unknown. Yesterday, I explained to a student for whom English is a second – or third or fourth – language that you couldn’t have “a different qualities,” and yet as I start to consider Navigation, I realize that Bynum has produced something that belongs to a special category, a masterpieces, a work that can shimmer into new identities, bringing multiple narratives into view.
Navigation is insistently plural, documentation of four realizations of a work recorded over two days in December 2012. True to its title, Navigation is a piece about getting from one place to another ... and then another and then another. The composition is worked on a grid with six equidistant points, each an individual piece, with lines connecting every point to every other point. Each Navigation (each further designated as a “Possibility Abstract” followed by a performance number) is a piece that is defined in its realization, not just because it’s a composition that includes improvisation, but as a piece that also includes structural decision-making in its processes.
The physical presentation of the four performances is unusual and I think significant. It’s available as a two-LP, two-CD set of versions 10-13, or separately as the two-LP Navigation (Possibility Abstracts 10 and 11 recorded live on December 7, 2012, Firehouse12 04-08-019), and the two-CD “12 and 13” (recorded without an audience on December 8, Firehouse12 04-01-019). Any of the three sets comes with an access code to download all four versions of the piece. The two versions on LP are played by Bynum’s Sextet with Jim Hobbs on alto saxophone, Bill Lowe on trombone and tuba, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Ken Filiano on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums and vibraphone. The two realizations on CD add Chad Taylor on drums and vibraphone as well.
The oddity of the mixed LP/CD format might seem designed to attract collectors, but I think there’s more to it than that, and it’s not necessarily a matter of length. One of the CD versions, “XII,” is 53 minutes long but that’s not absolutely beyond LP capacity. Instead the mixed format suggests the instability that’s at the heart of the work. It’s a work that resists containment. There’s also something about the musical languages of Navigation that resonate with the peculiar status of the LP, as both superannuated and recently rediscovered medium and with the competing convenience of the CD, the download and even the YouTube clip (where one can catch a live performance of Bynum’s previous suite for this sextet, An Apparent Distance). At a time when you can buy a four-foot square, vinyl, totemic replica of an Eric Dolphy LP cover, Bynum’s group’s often engage the traditional language of jazz in an instant by instant scrutiny.
That issue of media is worth considering. The dual media set up an oscillation that is central to this work, stressing the ironic relation of media in which substantiality and permanence are strangely at odds. With the return of the LP (prodded as much by the idea that music should have both physical substance and visible character as well as the vibrancy of analogue sound—the LP shouts, “This music matters and is to be realized in real space with real speakers” – the LP, oddly, is now the next thing to a live performance), the ubiquitous CD comes to appear as a transitory stage between the LP and the download, the mp3, the WAV file, etc. The LP is historically and heroically vulnerable in its physical relationship to the world, hence collectable; the download is permanent, immutable and trivial.
David Greenberger’s “A Musical Taxonomy: in search of the 5” solution” (Pulse!, June 1996, p. 24-25) provides valuable perspective, moving from the difficulty of storing CDs and LPs by the same artist only to go on to describe the madness of collectors, including one who organized his collection by the color of jacket spines and another who became distraught when clerks in record stores sorted his purchases by price because he organized his collection based on the moment of choosing a disc.
So there sits Navigation, at once substantial and elusive, the LPs in a beautiful aquamarine package (the CDs in a miniature thereof) that resists, perhaps deliberately, filing away on any traditional shelf and which dramatizes its own indeterminacy.
In his presentation of the work, Bynum doesn’t elaborate on the details of his methodology. A listener is constantly left to his or her own attentiveness to detail. The titles of Navigation’s six component pieces don’t have discursive titles: ISH, WUK, ZADE, TRIST, MANCH, and KID might be acronyms or compounds (TRIST, tryst, triste, perhaps a particularly sad romantic encounter between French and English speakers). The performances here include four to five of the parts in different orders. The parts are written in different methods, from conventional notation to graphic scoring, though the limited print materials don’t conveniently disclose which piece uses which method (The score of WUK appears on the inside gatefold of the LPs: it’s largely scored in rhythmic phrases without corresponding staff lines). Bynum has been more open on his website, “Notes on Navigation” supplying a description of the cueing technique that leads from one segment to another, the cues belonging to different musicians for each segment:
“Each section has two pieces that may lead into it, and two pieces that lead out of it. Where to go next is the real-time decision of the members of the ensemble. Each section has two musicians who can activate the cue to begin, each musician has two sections they are primarily responsible for cueing (with a different partner in each section).
“Therefore, while the materials within each section are pre-composed, the overall order is potentially different each performance. It is not necessary for all six sections to be played. Sections may be revisited during the course of the performance (multiple times if desired). The ensemble may choose to remain in one section for an entire performance, or play three, or visit fifteen with repetitions, those are all decisions for the moment.” (http://taylorhobynum.com/notes-on-navigation/)
Navigation is the current sum of a long process. Since first recording his sextet in 2005, Bynum has been particularly interested in developing multi-part, modular works for the grouping. The original incarnation of the sextet (including Fujiwara and Halvorson, and completed by violist Jessica Pavone, second guitarist Evan O’Reilly and Matt Bauder on tenor and clarinets), began the process with “JP & the Boston Suburbs” on The Middle Picture (Firehouse 12 04-01-002) and continuing with “whYeXpliCitieS” on Asphalt Flowers Forking Paths (hatOLOGY 675, 2008). For Bynum, there appears to be a strong link between the sextet format and the suite, so strong that the short pieces on the hatOLOGY CD are either solo cornet improvisations or trio pieces with Fujiwara and Halvorson. When that first version of the sextet played at the Vision Festival in 2008, the set consisted of the previously recorded suites.
These shorter suites gave way to the CD-length Apparent Distance (Firehouse 12 04-01-014, 2011) which also marked a significant shift in the make-up of the group. The original band, with two electric guitars, viola and clarinets, suggested both rock and chamber elements, though the first CD included the touchstone “In a Silent Way” and the Strayhorn/Ellington composition “Bluebird of Delhi.” The current sextet that appeared with Apparent Distance further emphasizes a strong relationship with jazz traditions, a key part of the various versions of Navigation, raising questions about jazz tradition as a collection of timbres and a special relationship to the idea of repertoire.
In his note to Asphalt Flowers Forking Paths, Michael Rosenstein pointed out the nexus of relationships and personal history that shaped the original sextet, indicating even the presence of Bill Lowe, a former teacher of Bynum, as dedicatee of a piece. Lowe is now a member of the sextet, a jazz veteran like another new band member, bassist Ken Filiano. The newly arrived Jim Hobbs has previously worked with Bynum in the front-line of Fully Celebrated Orchestra. There’s also a current trio called Aych with Bynum, Halvorson and Hobbs. The inclusive Navigation seems to engage narrative, both in personal relationships and in historical ones. Each set has a quotation from Nathaniel Mackey’s novel Bass Cathedral, the fourth installment in From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, an epic fictional history of a free jazz band. The passage on the LPs’ jacket is particularly apt, concluding:
“Still, I knew it was a place I’d once been in I was dreaming about, knew the dream I was dreaming was again the dream I’d often had before. I knew this even though so little about it seemed the same. Mostly what I felt, how I felt, made it the same. I felt a sense of arrival, almost of never having left.”
The sense of dream, return and a creative repetition permeate the work. While Bynum credits the methodological influences of Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Bill Dixon, this kind of experiment in process reaches back to Jimmy Giuffre’s Mobiles for orchestra and soloist (1958) in which a conductor decided the sequence of movements the orchestra played while Giuffre improvised. However, it’s not the presence of sources that makes Navigation stand out, but the sheer musical results.
In the multiple interpretations of Navigation and its six components, it becomes apparent that Bynum has constructed a repertoire as much as a suite, a body of melodies, moods and materials not unlike the material that would get Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane through a set. The pieces include both the earthy and the celestial, though these typologies may be as much about interpretation as composition. There are both funk riffs suggestive of certain works of Henry Threadgill (with whom Lowe was a collaborator) and almost archaic blues, but there are also pointillist and textural works. In the course of a performance, different groupings will hit on likely components (the transition “ZADE-WUK” appears twice in Possibility Abstract XII), but their elaboration and sequencing is both an invitation to invention and a challenge, with each member of the group getting to make structural decisions at one point or another.
The joy of the work is that it appears to be so congenial an approach to the band that’s playing it, so you get six (or seven) musicians of the very first rank playing with rare creative spirit. Each Navigation is a long and complex work, but it’s also responsive to the individual, so that a particularly inspired performance is possible, like Hobbs and Halvorson’s contributions to “11” and Bynum’s to “12.”
The notion of narrative is stronger here than the notion of continuity, though there’s no sense of program music, of the imitation of a sequence of non-musical events. It is the musical equivalent of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, a novel that keeps suggesting variant reading sequences. With each reiteration, the “pieces” come to sound like refractions, new both in context and treatment. I am a few listenings into the work and its shapes have both an immediate presence and an elusiveness, a shape-shifting quality that keeps a piece dynamic and surprising even after repeated hearing. Its genuine collective invention is one of the things that brings it very close to the jazz of the twenties, picking up and amplifying the timbres.
Something that has often struck me about Bynum’s performances with Anthony Braxton is the way in which he introduces ancient cornet vocal elements – smears and bleats – into works that bear little methodological resemblance. Here those resemblances grow, emphasizing Bynum’s exclusive use of the cornet. Bynum has declared his solidarity both with early jazz and with a special group of dedicated players who have persisted with the instrument despite the mass adoption of the trumpet around 1930. The present sextet’s front line of cornet, trombone and alto saxophone is very close to the classic frontlines of early New Orleans and Chicago ensembles of the 1920s. Hobbs’ alto, which sounds as much like a shofar as anything might sound by the end of Possibility Abstract XI, is more than a concession to the press of history. He brings in the explosive energies of Albert Ayler and the Sun Ra saxophone contingent, musicians steeped in the sounds of early jazz.
One can’t suggest a resemblance to historical jazz styles without raising issues of authenticity, and the dialectics of appropriation and homage. Clearly one of the seas being “navigated” here is the history of jazz as a series of gestures and resemblances, whether it’s echoes of ‘20s orchestrated blues or the music of Henry Threadgill, or, just as common here, the echoes of those ‘20s blues in Threadgill’s music. What is most generous about the source music in question – most specifically the blues of Ellington and Threadgill – is that the “originals” already contain elements of parody and exaggeration in their make-up.
While Bynum reveals the lessons of King Oliver, Bubber Miley, and Rex Stewart, Hobbs can occasionally call up the keening sound of Johnny Hodges (having been further transmuted and exaggerated at times through Eric Dolphy and Marshall Allen). At this remove, it’s hard to imagine the Hodges sound as other than art, as if anyone might actually experience the degrees of rapture that he seemed to express. In the analytical world of Navigation, it’s possible now to hear these calls as the authentic passions not of people but of saxophones.
That intensity of sound takes another form in Filiano’s arco playing: at times on the sextet recordings he achieves a genuinely cello-like sound from his bass, as if, in addition to fingering and bowing the notes, his hands are somehow compressing the resonating capacity of the instrument’s body. Similarly, the addition of Chad Taylor to the two later versions compounds the band’s energy, generating a new challenge and possibility for the soloists.
The power of such moments and their localized movements is such that individual sounds and collocations blur the outlines of the encapsulating works. In this sense Navigations is a work that requires multiple listening just as it is designed for multiple performances, those multiple listenings somehow furthering the work’s compound and regenerative tensile structures.