Taylor Ho Bynum / Joe Morris / Sara Schoenbeck Next

[Porter; 2011]

Styles: free improvisation, modern jazz, creative music
Others: Bill Dixon, Anthony Braxton, The Othertet

“Chamber jazz” and “chamber improvisation” are weird and sometimes misconceived terms in creative music. There was an unspoken assumption that paring jazz ensembles down would negate swing, since that was the provenance of the big band. Indeed, the idea that bebop small-group music was missing the arrangement and velocity of large-group swing is to narrow the meaning of both. In bebop, the presence of a rhythm section and harmonic base to carry the music along was deemed a near-requirement. That music, as much as it was concerned with liberating the rhythm section to occupy soloistic roles, still held to certain conventions, though that spirit of shifting roles naturally led to its challenge in the 1950s by such figures as vibraphonist Teddy Charles and reedman Jimmy Giuffre. Their work was often termed “cool” and sometimes derided for a perceived lack of “swing.”

Perhaps these were early instances of a sentiment that composer/reedman Andrew Raffo Dewar expressed in the notes to his Six Lines of Transformation (Porter, 2008) — that, essentially, the piece was composed based on the personality of the players rather than the instruments they individually played. As one of Dewar’s mentors, composer-trumpeter Bill Dixon might put it “allowing or encouraging the musicians to ‘do what they did.’” Composition, orchestration, and notation in real-time are, after all, based on the experience of having the work played, the ideas explored, and the musicians brought in because they are trusted to make something “right.” Ideally, we’re listening to Tommy Flanagan’s music swing not because he is a pianist, but because he’s Tommy Flanagan. It may seem like a cop-out to say that music is what it is because of who was there making it happen, but that’s essentially what lies at the heart of composition, whether improvised or traditionally composed.

Brass multi-instrumentalist and improvising composer Taylor Ho Bynum studied with Dixon and with Anthony Braxton, and his work has run the gamut from Afro-Latin big bands (Positive Catastrophe) to small groups. Sometimes these bands have traditional bass and drum accompaniment, whereas in others — like this trio with bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and guitarist Joe Morris — harmonic and rhythmic interplay are the result of players’ mettle first and chosen instrumentation second. And although this is a music built from particulars, it’s important to note that Next does have some precedents, namely in the Diamond Curtain Wall music of Anthony Braxton (with Bynum, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and bassoonist Katherine Young), as well as Braxton’s AACM-rooted Creative Construction Company with trumpeter (Wadada) Leo Smith and violinist Leroy Jenkins from a few decades prior.

What makes the music on Next interesting in terms of its construction is the fact that it’s extremely leveled, which means that all three voices — brass, reed, and string — exist in parallel fields of action. In terms of background and foreground, neither is significant in the traditional sense. Players bunch their activities together allowing notes to coagulate or stipple, but essentially the three musicians are in a constant orbit flatly related to one another, with the latter not being a term of derision, but of how the sounds are applied in space. Long, held tones provide a landscape for Morris’ acoustic guitar flicks on the opening “Glacial (Memory),” wowing brass multiphonics and sputtering double-reed cycles moving from diffuse to concrete layers against lacy six-string passages. The horns begin to splay out in sweeping convergent gestures, as Morris’ speckles encircle and demarcate the temporality of pace. Schoenbeck is a revelation from the get-go on “Fireside,” her husks delicate and contrary to the more bullish technicality of sister-in-arms Katherine Young, phrases recalling a peckish Steve Lacy among microtonal wisps and dusty chugs. The threesome become more distinct and daring by the time “Small Footprints of Unidentified Creatures” rolls around, the bassoonist’s throaty sighs and round vibrato shoring up part of the trio’s field as Bynum elaborates on tinny micro-phrases. It’s a relaxed conversation in some ways, unhurried but still full of flesh and concentrated energy.

Horizontal, wiry scrapes and jangle couple with brash cornet salvos on “Consensus Struggle,” a brief foray into aggressiveness by a trio that tends toward sparser straight-arrow movement. Morris’ pick movements are an interesting textural device, sounding more like the narrow harmonic range of a Chinese or African single-stringed violin, occasionally augmented with grace chords. Gulps, guffaws, and other animal noises pepper Bynum’s work in similarly condensed daubs; when he switches to the valve trombone-like bass trumpet, a rhythmic force becomes palpable, though it’s still beholden to the hunt-and-stab rondos of Schoenbeck and Morris. The egalitarian nature of this ensemble sometimes works against the music’s force, however, as with a sonically flat canvas, colors and actions don’t pop out from their orbits and grab one by the arm as much as one might hope. Passages of gentle shoving do appear on occasion — incisive airs on the closing title track, for example — but a lack of subversion in the three musicians’ personalities (on this record) renders some of the improvisations on Next a little cool. Still, the work unfolds as a well-balanced set of tonal explorations and contrasts, and a glimpse into composition as a choice of individuals.

Links: Taylor Ho Bynum / Joe Morris / Sara Schoenbeck - Porter

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