May 6, 2007

NYC (Part 2): Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet – Jazz Gallery, NYC 4/27/07

Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet
Jessica Pavone: viola, electric bass
Loren Kiyoshi Dempster: violoncello
Mary Halvorson: electric guitar
Evan O’Reilly: electric guitar
Tomas Fujiwara: drums


Friday morning was cold and rainy. Ah, springtime on the east coast! Tennessee’s storms had finally made their way up to Manhattan and brought with them flash floods and general dreariness. Even so, after the previous evening’s marathon walk, the chilly, damp weather made it all the more appealing to sleep in a little bit - so we did.

After a hearty brunch at the classic, old-style Waverly Restaurant on 6th Avenue, we headed back up town to the Museum of Modern Art where I was shocked to find a line down the block to get in on this miserably rainy Friday afternoon. But, again, that awesome New York efficiency managed to move us through the line with amazing speed. While it is gratifying to see such huge crowds turn out for high-modernism, it was not a very comfortable experience for looking at art. One could not even get close to any of the Van Goghs, Picassos, or Miros. And, what is up with the need to take digital photos of every damn painting? I swear, many people were more concerned with “collecting” these crummy little images than actually looking at the art, which is, you know, right there and only right there. Very strange.

Even so, the recently enlarged museum allows for a much more thorough examination of the collection (even if some of my favorite paintings were not on display). Several first-rate Rothkos and an entire room of Jackson Pollocks were particularly inspiring. A small room beside the jam-packed Monet “Waterlillies” gallery was surprisingly empty, and contained a number of Duchamps and Malevich masterpieces that could be quietly and intently contemplated. Duchamps’ bicycle wheel and shovel still retain the power to shock and alienate the viewer – no wonder the gallery was mostly empty! Elsewhere, I was struck by a series of prints by Barnett Newman which gave me a better appreciation for this artist who has consistently left me cold. Their modest size and serial presentation, combined with the rich pigments of the printer’s ink, made his “zip” motifs much more compelling to me than his “heroic” and massively oversized canvases. It’s always refreshing to have my negative opinions overthrown and I am sure that I will now see his work in a new and more favorable light.

After making our way through most of the permanent collection, the overwhelming amount of artwork and the dense crowds had thoroughly taken its toll on both of us. We were exhausted. And thirsty. It was still spitting outside, so we ducked into the Heartland Brewery for a refreshing microbrew (named “Grateful Red” ha ha) and some decent fried calamari. After a series of phone calls, we headed back down to the Village to meet my friend, Scott, for a tasty dinner at Gobo, a very fine vegetarian/vegan restaurant on 6th Avenue.

By the time we finished dinner, the rain had finally let up and Lizzy headed off to her program at the Shambhala Center, and Scott and I headed across Washington Square Park to one of the world’s finest record stores, Downtown Music Gallery. I chatted briefly with co-owner Bruce about the old days of UYA and the latest activities of bassist/producer Bill Laswell and he helpfully scrounged me up a copy of David Tudor : Piano Music on Editions RZ which was the one new CD that I absolutely wanted to pick up while I was in The City. I browsed a bit, but while I could (and later did) spend hours gathering a huge pile of CDs to buy, it seemed a little rude to leave Scott hanging like that. Besides, we were on our way further downtown to hear some jazz, and I didn’t want to lug a bunch of stuff with me. I knew I would have plenty of time on Saturday to go shopping. After a quick espresso on 2nd Avenue, we jumped in a cab down to the Jazz Gallery.


Taylor Ho Bynum has made a name for himself as a decade-long collaborator with Anthony Braxton and has assembled a fascinating sextet for his new CD on his own Firehouse 12 label, The Middle Picture. This performance at the Jazz Gallery served as a CD release party, so I bought a copy (for a mere $10) from Mr. Bynum himself, who was genuinely warm and down-to-earth. We briefly discussed Braxton’s “Ghost Trance Music” (and my difficulty with its rhythmic sensibility) and he graciously thanked me for buying his CD and attending the performance. Excuse me for bringing it up once more, but the myth of the mean, rude New Yorker was again shown to be a vicious lie.

Drawing largely from the compositions featured on The Middle Picture, the sextet presented an inspired set of interestingly modernist jazz. Cellist Loren Kiyoshi Dempster replaced reedist Matt Bauer for this performance and his obvious classical training added to the “chamber music” quality of the evening, especially in combination with Jessica Pavone’s viola. Bynum’s tenure with Anthony Braxton has certainly influenced his compositional and performance approach: complex linear figures are collaged and folded around improvisational segments for solos, duos and trios. This is extremely abstract stuff, but the ensemble seemed right at home with the material and everyone offered up sympathetic and thoughtful improvisations.

Mary Halvorson particularly impressed me. She played a big ole Gretsch hollowbody electric guitar and mostly stuck to a very straight, very idiomatic Jim Hall-style jazz guitar sound, but her note choices and rhythms were always extremely interesting. But then she would occasionally introduce subtle electronic devices such as volume pedal, digital delay, whammy-pedal, or a deliberately scratchy volume pot to create blurring effects that were delightfully novel and thoroughly expressive. Furthermore, Ms. Halverson demonstrated a mastery of extended techniques, from complex finger-picking to Derek Bailey-esque squeaks, scrapes and plunks. Just when I thought nothing new could be done with an electric guitar, someone like Ms. Halverson comes along to show me the way. Wow.

Taylor Ho Bynum himself is perhaps the most inventive trumpeter (OK, cornettist) since Lester Bowie. Not that he sounds like Lester Bowie, but he approaches the instrument in a way that completely transcends the clichéd, while still embracing the instrument’s entire legacy. Bynum can go from low-frequency growls to high-intensity shrieks in a measure, but he can also play fluently with a warm-toned, vibrato-less - almost Milesian - sound. He wielded an arsenal of mutes (including an old felt hat!) that extended his textural range even further. While he was clearly the leader of the group, he generously shared the spotlight with every other member of the ensemble.

I wish we could have stayed for the second set, since it seemed like the ensemble was just starting to really gel, but Scott had a train to catch, and I was pretty tired myself.

I highly recommend The Middle Picture; listening to it brings back this remarkable set in my mind’s ear. And keep your eye on Mr. Bynum - and Ms. Halverson! – I think they represent a positive and creatively fruitful future for jazz in the 21st Century.


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