For many the main defining aspect of jazz is improvisation. And yet many of the most creative artists who have been associated with this kind of music, however broadly defined, have explored the deeply running continuum between composition and improvisation, be it Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Steve Lacy, or Anthony Braxton. Composer and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum belongs to this lineage.
Bynum began trumpet lessons at the age of ten, became attracted to jazz, but early on sought his own way, eschewing the uncritical imitation of mainstream modern jazz from the Sixties and Seventies that has trapped so many. His broad interests in literature and the arts, as well as his restless pursuit of new forms of musical expression, were perfectly matched for study under Braxton at Wesleyan. Braxton, whose keen intellectual investigations of creativity, composition, and improvisation are unique in today’s world, was the perfect mentor for the young musician. At Wesleyan, Bynum was able to explore music in a thoughtful and open manner, to form friendships and artistic alliances that still guide him today, and to study with a performance and composition teacher with a strong personality and opinions who nevertheless inspired his students to explore their own ways. The tutor eventually became a collaborator and friend; today Bynum is not only a member of Braxton’s various groups but is also the executive director of his Tri-Centric Foundation. [Mike B says: that’s the Braxton-associated foundation I can find]
When you listen to Bynum you immediately perceive that he has absorbed the whole history of jazz, not just the lessons of the last decades. These days he concentrates on the cornet, the trumpet’s smaller, more graceful, and less brassy cousin. This was the instrument of King Oliver and Bix Beiderbecke, but it was also preferred by two of Duke Ellington’s band members, Ray Nance and Rex Stewart. The cornet has a different tonal palette than the trumpet; it seems more malleable and has a vocal quality that fits Bynum’s fascination with resonance and sound texture, something that leads him back to early Ellington. Not so long ago when I was listening to him take a long, exuberant, very abstract solo, I could not help but think of Stewart, whose almost voice-like, sly half-valve effects, timbral shifts, and sense of humor live on, transformed radically, to be sure, in the work of the younger cornetist. Stewart was not only a musician but also a writer who penned many essays and reviews, culminating in his wonderful autobiography, Boy Meets Horn. Bynum is likewise a very good essayist, whose written work is now a fixture in the online version of The New Yorker.
Bynum is involved with many groups, some led by him, some by others, and for the last decade he has focused on composing for his sextet. But currently he is touring in celebration of the twentiethth anniversary of his duo with the equally original drummer Tomas Fujiwara. They will play at Kerrytown Concert House on July 8, with an opening short set by Alwin-Kozora-Michalowski, a trio of which I’m a member.