Taylor Ho Bynum Explores the Indeterminacy of Genre and Style

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On Taylor Ho Bynum’s The Ambiguity Manifesto, members of his 9-tette, all respected improvisers and bandleaders, help make the bandleader’s shapeshifting pieces possible.

(Photo: Merve Kayan/Cutting Bird Media)

Taylor Ho Bynum has spent his career navigating the intersection of structure and improvisation.

“I’ve always been interested in the spaces in between, when you’re moving naturally from one thing to the other, and in between is something that’s not quite either anymore,” said the cornetist, composer and bandleader. “That’s the place that is richest to me, where genre or style becomes ambiguous.”

With The Ambiguity Manifesto, Bynum and his 9-tette have completed a trilogy for Firehouse 12 Records that began with the bandleader’s 2013 sextet recording, Navigation (Possibility Abstract X & XI), and continued with 2016’s Enter The Plustet, an album that made use of a 15-piece ensemble. All three were recorded at Firehouse 12, the studio and performance space in New Haven, Connecticut, that Bynum calls his “second home.”

Founded in February 2005 by engineer Nick Lloyd—a middle school classmate of Bynum’s from Brookline, Massachusetts—Firehouse 12 occupies a subterranean space in what was a functioning firehouse between 1905 and 1960.

“It sat vacant for decades, and by the time I took it over in February 2001, the building was a total mess,” Lloyd recalled. “It meant doing a total gut renovation, since there was literally nothing inside that was reusable.”

Having gone their separate ways since high school, Lloyd and Bynum were reunited in 2005 when the trumpeter was playing a show at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. As Bynum recalled, “We got together for dinner and I told him, ‘Yeah, I play weird music now.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’m presenting weird music now.’ So, we decided to join forces and start a label [in 2017].”

Since February 2005, though, Firehouse 12 has served as a recording studio, as well as a venue. Later in September, it’s set to host a show by reedist Ingrid Laubrock. And the following month, violinist Jessica Pavone, drummer Matt Wilson and vocalist Fay Victor, among others, are slated to perform.

In the label’s early years, Bynum served as the de facto A&R director—in addition to helping out with other facets of the business: “I was also involved in packing CDs and sending them off,” he said. “But as the label grew and I got busier with other stuff, I stepped back from that a bit. I’m still very proud to be an artist on the label, and it’s very much my family, but I’m not as involved anymore. Now, it’s really Nick’s baby.”

Bynum’s The Ambiguity Manifesto, which is due out Friday, counts as the imprint’s 30th release, and sits alongside dates helmed by composer Anthony Braxton, pianist Myra Melford and a host of other performers pushing at the edges of the genre.

“I’ve worked with Taylor for many years in many different configurations, and The Ambiguity Manifesto is one of my favorite works that he has written so far,” said guitarist Mary Halvorson, who contributes to the new recording. “It synthesizes so many elements of Taylor’s composing—a strong sense of melody, a strong sense of surprise, a wide sonic palette, freedom for the musicians to steer the composition—to create a fluid, modular, flexible piece of music that is incredibly varied with each new performance, yet somehow keeps its core identity intact. It always feels joyful, intense and energetic.”

Working through three movements and four separate deconstructions/reimaginations of those same pieces, Bynum and his 9-piece crew achieve an organic balance throughout Ambiguity on provocative suites like the explicitly rhythmic “Neither When Nor Where,” the abstract “Ally Enter,” the unapologetically melodic “Unreal/Real (For Old Music)” and “Real/Unreal,” a dedication to the late, prescient fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, that builds from elegiac ballad to tumultuous crescendo.

“I tried to keep the writing relatively easy, so the complexity doesn’t distract from the ability to extract ideas and really let each individual in the band take a lot of creative license with the material,” said Bynum. “So, if I give [alto saxophonist] Jim Hobbs or Mary Halvorson a melody, I don’t have to specify the dynamics or tempo or articulation, because I know they’re going to do something interesting with it. I trust them to take the agency to let it go in its own direction. For example, a piece that I might’ve imagined as a ballad becomes this raging inferno of intensity. When that happens there’s a thrilling sense of ‘We got here together! I don’t know how we did it, but we got here.’”

Given the space to interpret Bynum’s writing, the musicians collected here also help expand the scope of what the bandleader initially had aimed for.

“I just love these musicians so much,” said Bynum, who also serves as the director of the jazz and creative music ensemble at Dartmouth College. “They take such cool chances, and that’s the thing that’s fun for me. I don’t want to know what the music sounds like before I get on the stage or in the studio with the musicians. The things that they discover with it that I never could’ve thought of is what makes me happiest. ... I want to instigate their creativity while holding it together as an ensemble. But it’s kind of fun to get out of their way and just let them do some incredible shit.” DB




On Sale Now
December 2019
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