New Haven-based cornetist-composer Taylor Ho Bynum brought his 9-tette to Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut, on March 2 to perform his new hour-long opus, The Ambiguity Manifesto, just before going into the studio to document the four-movement suite at Firehouse12 in New Haven.
Unfortunately, the gig coincided with one of the worst Nor’easters the area has seen in years, marked by powerful, gusting winds, damaging high-tide flooding and torrential downpours from Virginia to Maine that made the drive up from New York treacherous. And while some of Bynum’s forward-thinking peers—guitarist Mary Halvorson, cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Stomu Takeishi, alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs and drummer Tomas Fujiwara—made the drive to Real Art Ways without incident, bassist Ken Filiano and tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, who had left Brooklyn at 1 pm, hadn’t arrived by showtime.
So, the engaging bandleader sprung into action like a veteran tummler, stalling by fielding questions from the audience, talking about his musical roots, his mentor Anthony Braxton and the profound influence of trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon and “conductionist” Butch Morris, while also explaining the genesis of his latest work, which he said “advocates for the unknown, the uncertain.”
With showtime scheduled for 7:30 p.m., the 9-tette took to the Real Art Ways stage 30 minutes late. The freewheeling first movement, “Enter Ally,” opened with Takeishi on electric bass, engaging the strings of his instrument not with the fingers of his left hand but with a plastic cup that he used as a slide, while alternately crushing and crinkling it over his electric pickups for noisy effect. Upright bassist Filiano then joined Takeishi for a low-end conversation before Laubrock entered on soprano saxophone and Reid frantically bowed her cello. This outré language built to a crescendo before Halvorson and Bynum introduced a melodic motif that the band then developed while Takeishi, now on his knees, back to the audience in front of his bass amp, made like Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival.
This balancing act between composed and purely improvised material continued throughout all four movements with individuals stepping up at Bynum’s request to blow intensely on their respective instruments. Whether it was tenorist Laubrock making like Peter Brötzmann on “Enter Ally,” altoist Jim Hobbs channeling his inner Marshall Allen on the groove-oriented second movement, “Neither When Nor Where” (dedicated to funk drummer extraordinaire James Gadson), or bass trombonist Bill Lowe, who mentored a teenaged Bynum, engaging in some old-school growling and conversing, the members of the 9-tette responded with quick instincts and wide-open minds to the bandleader’s impromptu gestures.
They closed out their invigorating—and at times transcendent—set with the spacious rubato meditation “Real Unreal,” dedicated to the late fantasy and science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, which had Halvorson unleashing her signature tones, textures and heavily effected loops while Bynum showcased some animated plunger work. This fourth movement of The Ambiguity Manifesto gently faded to black with Bynum’s warm, long tones over a soft drone, the cornetist circular breathing on a single decaying note, like a light slowly dimming. DB