A Fireside Chat With Taylor Ho Bynum
THB: Yeah, well, I think for us, there is still a lot more to explore in these tunes. I think one of the problems with jazz, is in defined by the academy and the institution is this is what jazz is. You play these tunes and you improvise over these chord changes and this style. That is not all you can do with it. Even if you go back to what Ellington was doing and what Lester Young was doing, there is whole other levels of textural things, timbre concepts you improvise with, rhythmic concepts you can improvise with, form that you can improvise with. So for us, it was a chance to take these melodies and really dig into them a different way with the greatest respect to people who still do that. I think it is great to focus in on doing the changes to "My One and Only Love." Those are great changes. It is an inspiring way to work. There is also weird nooks and crannies in the melody that are really inspiring places to investigate too.
FJ: More recently, Innova has released a collaboration between you and Braxton, Duets (Wesleyan) 2002. You are no stranger to Braxton's music, but does it still present a challenge?
THB: I think every composer's compositions are challenging, but I think people have more of a background in it because it can be put in more of a follow the changes kind of way to play their music that people can fake it better. You can't fake Braxton's stuff unless you've been trying to figure that stuff out for years because one of his geniuses is that he has been really focused on creating his own language. So to play his music, you really have to understand his language and really respect it as its own entity, as its own being. So it is an incredible challenge. One of the things that is good for me is that I started playing it young. We are working on a, in one of the ensemble classes here at Wesleyan, I was playing an incredibly hard piece of his called "Composition 96," but it is something I have been doing since I was seventeen, so it feels like home at this point. Which still doesn't mean that it is not the hardest stuff in the world to play. It still kicks my ass, but it has very much become a part of me and very much a part of my language. I can't claim to be an expert in it. It is such a deep place. I have only scratched the surface, but I have been scratching the surface long enough to have some familiarity with it to be comfortable with it and have a good time.
FJ: What is SpiderMonkey Strings? Animal, mineral, vegetable?
THB: I have had different projects called SpiderMonkey for the past ten years. That relates to, I have a fascination with trickster myths and trickster mythology and so SpiderMonkey, of course, being named after the two great trickster spirits: Anansi the Spider and the Monkey King, from Africa and Asia respectively. For me, the trickster embodies a lot of the attributes that are necessary to be a creative artist, a sense of humor, a sense of reverence, a type of spirituality, a willingness to play in the ambiguous areas. It is not all black and white. It is not all good and evil. It is the unknown and we should celebrate that. So I have always had this fixation with that and so often, when I have a project of unusual instrumentation, I named it SpiderMonkey. This new group is something I just started working with. That actually started because my brother-in-law is a filmmaker. He asked me to do a soundtrack for his next piece and wanted a string quartet. So I put together this group with some of the best string players I knew of: Jason Hwang and Jean Cook on violin, Okkyung Lee on cello, Stephanie Griffin on viola, and Pete Fitzpatrick on guitar. We just started working and just started writing for them, but that has been a great time. It is a totally different instrumentation. It is a totally different place to be. It is an incredible challenge for me because there are certain things that I know how to do when I am in front of a bassist and drummer that I just can't do in this context. It is a whole different way to blend, for me to blend as a cornet. I don't want it to be me with strings. I want it to be a band that has a sound that has strings and a cornet in an organic way, as opposed to a featured soloist with a string quartet behind them. So for me, it is a great challenge to figure out how to write for that, how to be a part of that, how to play in that. It is a lot of fun. I hope to keep working in that group and eventually record it.
FJ: A brother-in-law filmmaker and an opera angel mother. Must make for interesting dinner conversation.
THB: (Laughing) Yeah, and my sister is an incredible, creative writer. She is a really great fiction writer. I feel very lucky. It is a very inspiring family to be in.
FJ: And the future?