Monday, September 19, 2011

the experts (1) - thb sextet 2010

(since i had in mind - still do - a brief post about that first james fei album, the symmetry seemed too perfect to ignore when i caught up with this recording the other day... of the "wesleyan period", these are definitely two of the guys i'd have at the top of my experts list when it comes to b's music..!)

taylor ho bynum sextet at saalfelden jf 2010

this concert knocked me the fuck out, no kidding... it comprises one complex, long-form piece and one long encore, a (not exactly improvised) skewed blues which is just pure pleasure...

the leader opens the first piece himself, taking a little time to establish some of his core vocabulary (and also establishing a pattern as we shall see). the next thing i really remember is a very hot alto solo by jim hobbs which certainly grabbed my attention, but in any case the main section which follows the opening is what sticks in the mind best 'cos this was damn hot intelligent groove-based stuff with all sorts of spikes and concealed pockets, and it had me thinking of charles tyler and steve reid... this the first of several sets of names i shall invoke over the course of this brief enquiry, not with a view to pigeonholing mr bynum, nor even to aiding the reader with an understanding of his music since this was, after all, just one performance..., but rather in the course of making a wider point.

two basic things about the structure of "apparent distance": the leader's cadenzas punctuate it, not only revealing more about thb's language and personal expressiveness each time, but also signalling transitional shifts between territories (sound familiar?); and solos are not quite the same as normal here - wait,  that is, they are just the same, but somehow much greater than the sum of their parts, each player besides the leader enjoying one phase of totally dominating the group sound in addition to all the interaction required of them. (thb admits afterwards that it's a hard one to play!)

for a long while in the middle of the piece (which lasts around 45 mins btw) the name which kept coming back to mind was henry threadgill - specifically the sextett, above all suggested by the instrumentation (two brass, one reed plus double strings): the unusual combination allowed for some fabulously rich and "liveable" group textures, and besides which, for anyone with even a little knowledge of thb's past associations, a look down the personnel list brings a frisson of excitement, since one knows this band just can't fail... that too is a hallmark of the threadgill sextett! the music itself - apart from that long main section kicked hard into motion by hobbs, it didn't necessarily remind me of anyone for the most part, it changed and shifted constantly and never let me doze off at all...

... till another last cadenza by the leader had me marvelling at how much richness he could infuse into simple close-mic'd exhalations of breath, then mixing this in with his playing (in a manner which reminded me at once of b., though the spirit of bill dixon also seemed to hover over the performance *1,2) - what these references really indicate though is the level of mastery being achieved here, the sound of a vocational creative musician after countless hours of hard work and detailed soul-searching; towards the end of this final major statement by the leader, tomas fujiwara starts up a dry, rattling march to the scaffold and an echo of another (possible) funeral drum appears (comp. 23a *3). the gravity of the theme which takes us out, when it eventually arrives, had me thinking this time of the early mothers of invention (with the superb-as-always mary halvorson filling in here for don preston, occupying much the same areas of the group-space). it really is an impressive ending to a most interesting piece.

(i hope that it is really superfluous to repeat that) none of these reference points above is cited for any other reason than to give a sense of how listening to this band allows us to hang out with masters past and present... precisely the value of witnessing such a performance is that it reaffirms that special experience of the fully committed, which is that one's attention and wholehearted desire to learn is rewarded with access to the great continuum, and one begins channelling energies from outside - from the collective knowledge pool of the great minds... i have experienced this myself in martial arts practice, and can therefore imagine it applying in the same way to music - and indeed to numerous other artforms; one arrives at a state of focus wherein any questions one has are immediately answered, as if from within... and for a short while in our confused lives, all is laid out and clearly visible... in any case i don't have to imagine anything here, not when i can hear it for myself, can recognise the (heightened/sharpened) state by the effects it has on the ensemble.

i haven't mentioned that the drummer's role is pretty demanding above all on this long piece, everyone has to concentrate hard for a long time (though everyone gets to lay out at times too) but the drummer is called upon to provide a great deal of fire and momentum, and tomas fujiwara does not let us (or his regular duo partner) down.

the encore is just announced as "a blues", a light relief for the band after such a hard main course but, naturally, this is game playing of a very high order, recalling of course the piece simply entitled "blues" from mr lewis' masterpiece homage to charles parker - in some ways, and merely because it cannot possibly be unaware of it - and with shades of many other highly-refined practitioners of artistic entertainment... the dutch spring to mind, more braam-de joode-vatcher than icp perhaps, but that sort of level of sophisticated play - the name mostly other people do the killing also leaps to mind, although this deep-cleanse debrief (after the intense opening number) is far less manic than MOPDtK: in any case it is easy, relaxed-yet-watchful ludic mastery on all sides and just sheer "earoticism" for the listener... the ending is totally unexpected, simple and highly effective!

when mr bynum tells us afterwards how lucky he feels to have this band available at this time, etc, it could all get a bit gushy but in truth, after a performance like that (and with deeply-bonded players in some cases... jim hobbs and thb go way back, he and halvorson have been through a lot together too..!) we can well imagine how astoundingly privileged he must feel, looking round the stage at his marvellous players, all of whom are gathered here to play for him... it gives shivers, rather than any nausea - ! the sort of non-arrogant pride which no heart need ever feel shameful about reflecting.


i mailed thb to gush a bit, later the same day..! then the next day i dug out another recording, this one from (i think) the last time i recorded a show from radio 3, namely this one - and before i even got to the music i heard (prob. for the first time) the little interview in which bynum talks of how interested he is in (writing and arranging for) unusual instrumentations; he doesn't namecheck threadgill as such on this occasion (though that is the obvious comparison, for medium-sized ensembles especially) but he does communicate his evident fascination for unorthodox sound groupings and collective timbres. on this earlier occasion the sextet has two (unconventional) guitarists - mary halvorson joined by evan (not ed - sorry taylor!) o'reilly - and jessica pavone on further stringage, plus (another former braxton lieutenant) matt bauder on tenor, the ever dependable mr fujiwara on drums... so a totally different set of combinations of course, and indeed totally different music since this was a suite of three distinct compositions; but, again, as alive and vibrant and filled with the unknown as a rainforest at night.

- and finally there remains the (large) question of b's influence... of course it is there, and openly acknowledged; and traces of b's music can also be heard at times in the (super-)structural blueprints for bynum's "suites of rooms": he seems to favour longer, developed pieces in concert at least, whether several numbers segued together, or a single collection of experiences linked by the same guide or narrator - and it doesn't take a huge leap to see that this latter description could easily apply to diamond curtain wall or, especially, to gtm. BUT this music is not the same as either of those modalities, nor the same as anyone else's concept: this is taylor ho bynum's music, and the two concerts i heard over the two days, utterly different as they are, have more in common - in terms of shared artistic animus - than either has with anything else i can think of. highly highly recommended.

* see comments


centrifuge said...

i apologise if parts of this are unreadable, i really wanted to get it up but didn't have much inspiration when it came to the writing for some reason. i know from experience that some things i write at those times can leaving even *me* perplexed later on... "what the hell was i trying to say?!"


1. the reason this simultaneous-attack stuff now immediately reminds me of braxton is 'cos i've heard a lot of solo performances from, say, the last 15 yrs or so - during which time our man has mastered precisely this effect, that of both playing a horn and sub-diverting the forced breath through it at once; there are now several pieces among the (voluminous) solo books which are based around this complex principle.

the reason i thought of bill dixon about half a second later is because i only saw mr dixon once, and he was doing something vaguely similar, i.e. making much use of breath through the horn into a close mic (with and without effects). [this was THAT concert at the (old) royal festival hall; braxton and his students had (arguably) blown c.t. out of the hall and right into the filthy old thames - mr taylor was said later to have been most disgruntled and people did raise eyebrows at the way the bill had been put together, and although from my pov at the time it was like a dream come true - both acts for one concert ticket - i can see how it was all a bit thoughtless. (y'know... for a change.) mr taylor kept everyone waiting for a long time, and sent first oxley then dixon onstage ahead of him, before keeping us waiting some more..!] after the performance, bynum dedicates the music to mr dixon, in fact, cited as a big inspiration for all the players; the connection had long since occurred to me before i got this far, if only for the dubious reasons outlined above :)

centrifuge said...

2. there are plenty of (highly) experimental small-brass players out there, of course. i could easily cite peter evans, greg kelley, nate wooley et al - but then these are thb's contemporaries, and all of them have drunk deeply at the same source(s).

we could mention older players such as lester bowie or kondo toshinori... but at that point i start to run out of comparisons, this hardly being my specialist subject...

3. it took ages actually, but i eventually found myself hearing a lonely funeral drum in (the canonical) comp. 23a - the last cut on *new york fall '74*. it was there all along of course :)

Frédito said...

Two rainforests that are now on my listening list, looking forward to enter...
Thank you Cent' !

centrifuge said...

enjoy! incidentally, the earlier sextet performance is in my collection because i recorded it from bbc radio, but it is available for free download from thb's website.

Frédito said...

Thanks for the recommendation and for the tip on the earlier performance. I just took them in chronological order, both are marvelous. First I was particularly "hit" by the drummer on the Vision 2008 concert ; funny melody around 32mn, intense groove at 37ish (I took this "ish" suffix from reading you, I like it ; not certain whether I use it properly here, though) ; and a superb guitar conclusion.
Saalfelden 2010 is excellent again, around 25mn in Apparent Distance, a melody takes place, hispanic to my ears, or is it eastern european ? Fantastic, moving, and these intriguin sonorities ! A great piece with contrasted parts.
On Bowie I enjoyed the guitar and trumpet en particulier.
Beautiful palette of sounds.
Merci Cent'

centrifuge said...

glad to hear it (the music in general) was enjoyed! thb deserves wider recognition as a leader imo - but then we are (alas) talking about a scene in which NO-one has much in the way of recognition... i still regularly encounter people who claim to have wide and varied music taste, but who have never heard of b... even leaving aside the fact that in my experience most people have far narrower music taste than they think they have, this reflects a pretty sad state of affairs :(