Taylor Ho Bynum: Spontaneous Yet Focused
“ Whether it is composition or improvisation it is always just a tool to get to the magic place ”
Bynum is a partner on the new Firehouse label, which has been launchedwith some chutzpahwith a nine-CD extravaganza by Anthony Braxton, recorded at the Iridium club in New York City in 2006. The release was timed to coincide with a March, 2007 return engagement by Braxton's sextet, including Bynum, at the Iridium. I met Taylor at a Chinese restaurant at 9th and 24th Street, prior to the evening's exertions, midway through that run. Over dinner, we talked about his new releases, the new label, and touched on previous influences, life for creative musicians in New York City and more, in a wide-ranging conversation.
- True Events
- The Firehouse 12 Record Label
- The Middle Picture
- Compositional Concepts
- Living as a Musician in NYC
- The Cornet and The Mutes
- The Convergence Quartet
- Working with Anthony Braxton
- Future Plans
All About Jazz: You have recently released True Events, which is a duo of you and drummer Tomas [pronounced To-ma] Fujiwara. Before we talk about the music, let's just touch on the concept for this group. Trumpet and drums duos are not commonplaceyou talked about some predecessors in a guest piece on the Destination Out blogand now you have placed yourself firmly in that lineage. Care to say where you fit?
Taylor Ho Bynum: I realized it's an unusual configuration, but a lot of my personal heroes have performed in that configuration. So you have Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell on Mu (Affinity, 1969), the Lester Bowie/Phil Wilson record [Duet (Improvising Artists, 1978)], the Olu Dara/Phil Wilson I talked about on the blog [Esoteric (HatHut, 1979)], the Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley records [on Soul Note]. So certainly I was inspired by those examples and noticing the fact that, even though it was very unusual, the unusual trumpet players that I liked did it a lot. So that was the main inspiration. Part of it is that they are all trumpet players who have similar considerations to me: the idea of being more interested in timbre and extended technique rather than harmonic-based improvisation.
Actually I recorded two duos with a drummer before this with Eric Rosenthal in Boston, where we did all sort of deconstructed standards. So I guess it is also a context I feel very comfortable in. I talked about this a bit on the blog: there's a natural affinity because the trumpet tends to be something of a percussive instrument and I often think very percussively as I play, so there's a nice intimate connection there. And also I think for a lot of the playing I do, particularly in these duo contexts, it is not necessarily harmonically based improvisation.
So in that area, there's always the joy to have a pianist, a bassist, a guitarist, but there's not the need you would have in a traditional jazz context where you are improvising over chord changes or specific harmonic structures. Since we're using more timbral or rhythmic improvisation or whatever, you don't need it as much; you don't need the full band as much. And I feel with duos there is a perfect intimacy of communication which I really like.
AAJ: Absolutely. Four out of your first eight releases as leader or co-leader are duos.
THB: [laughs] It's also cheap. That may be part of it too.
AAJ: [laughs] I wondered about economics.
THB: It's easy to tour, you know? But there's something I love about the duo concept. It makes it totally explicit, that it is a collaborative form, you know. That it is not about a leader and side people. It is not about one star or four people backing them or however it gets defined. Or even the phraseology of a "jazz solo is never really a jazz solo. It's almost always one person improvising with three other people. So the duo just makes that completely explicit. It's just obvious that the two people involved are full equal partners in this endeavor. So there's something about that that I feel is kinda special.
AAJ: So in your liner notes, you say the music is highly improvisational, but you go on to say that it is far from a free improv session. Indeed the music sounds both spontaneous yet focused. How did you introduce the structure into the improvisation?
THB: Part of it comes naturally. Tomas and I have played together so long and know each other so well. So over the course of time in any relationship you tend to find things that are unique and special. So part of that will just come naturally in any long term musical relationship. But then what we did is go about it very systematically, very much influenced by Anthony Braxton's language music improvisations. You know he tells the story of how he did his first solo concert and felt he just ran out of ideas and he had to go back to his room and draw up a means of structuring improvisation. That idea of specifically identifying unique parts of your improvisational concept, that was something that was very important to us, but we decided to do that, but do that for what we have created as a duo as opposed to what someone has created as an individual improviser.
So we went through the things we do together. You know we played duo sessions together for years and years, so we went through, "what do we really like about what we do, and "how do we want to push ourselves past what we usually do? ; "What structures can we do to do that? So we didn't want to lock ourselves in because so much of our relationship is about the give and take of the music that we've made together, and Tomas is just a fantastic drummer, so I didn't want to just give him thirty page drum notated charts to read. I want to trust him. So just coming from that idea of a place where we can push ourselves past what we usually do, or also find ways to get to what we think we do the best, yet still leave it open enough for it to be spontaneous and surprising.
AAJ: You share this long musical relationship with Tomas Fujiwara. What's different about playing with Tomas compared to other drummers?
THB: One of the things that I think is wonderful is that he is one of my closest friends, so we can have a level of critical honesty in how we discuss music that's hard to do with someone that you're not as close to. And apart from being close friends, we are from almost completely opposite aesthetics [laughs] which is actually really great, as there is always this give and take and push and pull between what each of us wants to do and what our natural inclinations are.
But that said, he's also a fantastic and open-minded drummer, so we can go, he can go, in lots of different directions. His tendencies are probably more jazz based than mine and mine tend to be more outside, which again creates a really nice energy. So he's pulling in and I'm pulling him out and we find this space in between. But for me he is a marvelous drummer, he's unique. It's hard to specify how someone is unique. He has all the things you want in a really great musician: great technique, great sense of time. But then there is also that "X factor that I can't explain but is why we love making music together [laughs].
AAJ: I've noticed that your records are carefully crafted, with a definite pacing and flow. For instance this disc opens and closes with a piece "Wisdom, based on materials by master musician and educator Alan Dawson, and introduces a sense of ritual into the proceedings. Was it hard to choose the pieces for this record and put them together in the way you did?
THB: Well part of it is funny. Even when I was back in high school, I always loved making mixes [laughs]. I would always give mixes to my friends. And in some ways, now being a record creator, I still carry that sense of how I like the whole flow of a record, which is very important to me. The duo record was in some ways pretty easy. It was very natural how we wanted it to flow, so that went pretty quickly. With The Middle Picture, the sextet record, I struggled with the order of that for almost a year [laughs]. I was always changing it around and then once I'd found the right thing it clicked. It's really interesting, because the order puts this music so much in context. It really is affected by what comes after or what comes before, how you listen to what it is.
One of the real luxuries of working in this music for me is that you know most of your audience really is listening for an hour, listening carefully and listening to it for a whole sort of emotional experience, unlike a pop album where they might just want to hear a three-minute single. So you have both a luxury and a responsibility to create this longer-form narrative. And I'm also really interested in suites and how pieces of music connect to each other, so that's actually something that I always really enjoy in the process of putting together a recording, or even putting together a live set. But the True Events one, actually as I said, Tomas and I have very different aesthetics so there's always going to be a little bit of push and pull, but that one was pretty clear how we wanted to phase it and it came together pretty fast.
AAJ: Was there a lot of unused material from the session?
THB: A little bit, not a huge amount though. We recorded it in one day. You know we maybe had two hours worth of stuff. For us it was pretty clear what the strong takes were. And I find good recording sessions are often that way. When I did the duo with Braxton [Duets Wesleyan 2000 (Innova, 2002) , we literally recorded for about an hour [laughs] or hour-and-a-half. I was like, "well, I think we got it. Cool. .
Actually to contradict what I just said, I really like crafting the idea of an album or a document, but then you are also dealing with such a spontaneous music that it is easy to get caught up in the hours in the studio and beat it to death. So there is that balance between wanting to maintain the spontaneity and acknowledging that it's not a live concert, that you are recording it for different reasons, and things sound different on recordings than they do live.
AAJ: People are going to listen to it again and again.
THB: Yeah, exactly. So you won't want to have a glaring mistake [laughs]. But the music is about the spontaneity, so if it doesn't have that it's not going to survive. I'm happy to move fast in the studio. But I always just find those moments sometimes where there's a track where there is a mistake that's horrifying to you and nobody else in the world hears. You know, everyone else in the band is like "Taylor, it's fine. Don't worry about it. I'm, "No, no, but listen to what I did. [laughs]. But that's getting over yourself, so that's good to do I guess.
AAJ: So just to talk about some of the tracks on the record. I know it's perhaps difficult to talk about an improvisation a year after it's recorded, but, "Akickitaround is an Anthony Braxton expression right? And this piece was created using materials from Braxton's Language Music. Could you explain how that works in practice?
THB: Well Anthony has defined his twelve language types. One is long sounds, two is accented long sounds, three trill, four staccato, etcetera. So for that piece we were playing with the idea of juxtaposing different structures. Anthony often builds his solo music: "OK I'm going to do language three and language six. So we decided to do that, but each of us would pick our own language structures.
THB: Independently. So we're each dealing with our own idea, our own structure, but the interest is in how those two different structures juxtapose against each other. So that was how we put that one together. So when we went into it, I would pick a couple, he would pick a couple, and we'd hit. [laughs]. Let's stick with that idea, and see how those ideas interact.
AAJ: Now, those language structures originated for saxophone, and I can see that they would be transferable to cornet, but a bit harder for drums perhaps?
THB: To a certain extent, but in his orchestra music we use it in the ensemble. Originally he had some very specific saxophonistic ones, but then as time has gone by he has sort of distilled it down into these twelve that are more or less universal principles as to how you can apply them. Poor drummers are always stuck you know.
AAJ: [laughs] Is that trill or staccato?
THB: Exactly. They always have to interpret what other musicians are forcing upon them, so they're used to figuring stuff out.
AAJ: The longest track ("The Emperor of Ice Cream ) is the only improvisation without written, spoken or cued instruction, yet it comes across as equally structured to me as a listener. You also make telling use of silence on that piece as well. That seems a hard trick for an improviser to do.
THB: Definitely. The reason we called it "Emperor of Ice Cream is for one, I really love the Wallace Stevens poem [of the same name], but also when we first played together fifteen years ago, I had a weekly gig in an ice cream store where I worked. I was an ice cream scooper at this great little ice cream store in Brookline called Tuesday's. My boss let me do a weekly jazz series there. So that's one of the reasons we called it that.
We have such trust between us, and such a long musical relationship that it allows us to leave that silence for each other. I know that if Tomas' not playing there is a reason he's not playing [laughs]. Hopefully if I'm not playing, he feels the same way. And a sense of where we might go next, so we can have a real narrative structure even if it is purely improvised. And again, by consciously thinking so much about applying structure to improvisation, even when you are freely improvising, that structure is still implied. You listen to any great improviser, some of the great improvisers who claim to never use structures, they always have some idea organizing it, whatever it is, that's how the human mind works, so you always find something in there.
AAJ: I was going to ask about the titles. You seem to pick the areas you are going to improvise in and I wondered if sometimes the title came first?
THB: In this instance the titles came after. And an interesting process of our collaboration is that those who know us well can tell which are my titles and which are Tomas' [laughs]. But I go back and forth. There's sometimes I have an interesting idea where I feel, "that's the title, that's what I'm working with, but often they come afterwards. I tend to find some obscure personal reference that no-one in the world will get [laughs] and then just have that be the title. I try to keep the titles from being too specific because you don't want to lock people in to a sort of romantic concept of what it should be or how they should listen. You want the titles to be evocative but not confining.
The Firehouse 12 Record Label
AAJ: Your most recent release, The Middle Picture, is on the Firehouse 12 label which you are involved in running. Before we talk about the record, could you tell me how your involvement in the label came about?
THB: Well my friend Nick Lloyd, who is my partner in the Firehouse label, runs a really spectacular performance space and recording studio in New Haven. It was a long-term labor of love. It took him years and years to put it together. He bought an old abandoned building in a dilapidated neighborhood in New Haven for a dollar from the city and invested years in turning it into this state of the art beautiful space, which has really been quite amazing. It has actually reinvigorated that neighborhood. It is really a wonderful story. He's got this great press for it and won these awards for visionary city planning. It is quite excellent.
But the funny thing is that Nick and I want to elementary school together. We were neighbors and went from sixth through eighth grade together. But we hadn't really seen each other in years until I was in New Haven playing music for a theater piece at Yale Repertory Theater. So we reconnected and would go watch some baseball games in a bar, but then he told me about his plans for this space and I was really intrigued and excited by it.
So once it was finally up and running I performed there and also actually recorded the True Events record thereand actually the Sextet record I recorded there before I knew we were starting a label together. And at one point we were just talking and I was saying how I've been wanting to start a record label, just because as an artist I think it is really nice to be able to control how your own work comes out, and also to document some of the great stuff I see going on that's not getting recorded, and to do it as well as possible. And he'd been thinking about a record label, because he has this performance space and he has the recording studio and he's been thinking about what would be the perfect natural third component to this. He also was recording all this great stuff live and in New Haven there is a relatively small audience, so he's thinking "I wish there was a way to share this music with a larger audience.
So we got together and really just clicked with our ideas and what we wanted to do business-wise and creatively wise with this project. It has been a wonderful partnership so far. So that's how we came together. Once we'd agreed to do it, I said, "we've got that record I recorded here [laughs], so that's a good place to start. Then I knew Braxton was looking for a label to put out this giant box set. So what could be a more spectacular splash of insanity than putting out a 10-CD box set? [laughs].
AAJ: Absolutely. What a way to start a label.
THB: So that's how it got started.
AAJ: Do you and Nick have similar taste?
THB: I think we both have wide ranging taste. Again my natural instincts always tend to be a little bit weirder than some of my friends or collaborators. But I think we're both just really interested in creative musicstuff that we find really vibrant. We have pretty similar taste. The label has just started out and its identity right now is definitely on the outside jazz thing, sorta creative improvised music. But we're also open to it going in other directions and we will see how that goes over time.
AAJ: You have your sextet record and the Braxton nine-CD plus one-DVD set (which is excellentI bought my copy the day before yesterday). Have you got anything else in the pipeline?
THB: We're very excited for the fall. We are putting out the debuts as bandleaders for both Tyshawn Sorey, the drummer and composer, and Peter Evans, the trumpet player. Both have nice discographies but haven't done a group project as a leader yet and they are both just exceptional brilliant guys.
So those two records, and also one by [flautist] Nicole Mitchell, who performed with the 12+1tet and is an AACM member from Chicago. I met her for the first time last year when we had her come in to play with the 12+1tet group and I was just blown away by her musicianship and energy. It was just so positive. And that should be a very exciting project. She's doing a piece based on the text of the late Octavia Butler, who was a great science fiction writer, one of the very few African American female science fiction writers; a brilliant, brilliant woman, a really exceptional writer. Nicole had actually asked her about the project and got her full blessing just literally before she passed away. And so it is just a labor of love for Nicole to complete this project. So that should be really exciting. So those are the next ones coming out in the fall.
Those are all physical releases, but the label is also going to be doing download only releases. A lot of it pulled from live performances at the Firehouse. We'll ask the artists, "is it OK to pull a track or two from this performance and we'll share the royalties. Sort of an easy way to get some music out there and show what's going on in the space. Hopefully by the middle of the summer we'll have a body of just download only work up online too.
AAJ: Wow, I can't wait.
The Middle Picture
AAJ: The Middle Picture features both your trio with Tomas Fujiwara and Mary Halvorson and your Sextet with the addition of Matt Bauder, Evan O'Reilly and Jessica Pavone. It's a great record with really interesting compositions, dense ensembles and some lovely melodies as well. I've listened to it some seven or eight times now and I'm still hearing new things, which is good and how I like itI don't want something that gives itself up straight away.
THB: [laughs] Thank you.
AAJ: Could you tell me about the roles the players have in the ensemble?
THB: Well one of the things which is nice about this ensemble is that we've worked together for years in different combinations. You know, Evan, Tomas and I had a band together when we were in college, and Mary and Jessica are best friends, and they play together all the time, and I've worked with Mary and Jessica in Anthony's ensembles. And Matt is an incredible saxophonist. He's my favorite saxophonist player in New York and he and Jessica are partners and so they also make music together.
One of the things I love about it is, this is a sort of a side point, but I always had mixed feelings about living in New York because its so crowded, so expensive, so stressful, but one of the things I really treasure about the city is I feel there is a community of musicians and collaborators and people sharing ideas that I think is really exciting. There is a really exciting generation of younger musicians in New York right now. Not necessarily widely documented, or with a place to play [laughs], but creatively just really exciting, and so one of the things I liked about this particular project is that it is very much a reflections of that community, and comes out of that community. So this is my group, but the relationships that we have go beyond that group, which is one of the things that enriches the music and enriches the experience.
And then also because I get to hear these musicians regularly, a lot of the writing I do is very specifically for those players. I like the idea of the Ellington model of being like, I want to set up an improvisational context for Matt, not that I always know how Matt plays, he might completely surprise me, but I trust him. I want to see what he will do with this kind of thing, what Evan's going to do with this, what Mary's going to do with that. So that's one of the things that's nice is having a real intimacy with their playing, so I can frame contexts for them to improvise in. That's one of the things that always interested me.
Trying to be a composer for improvisers is always the battle, and trying to be a composer for improvisers and not depend on chord changes or strict forms to improvise over. How do you still keep a compositional identity, yet give the improviser full freedom to do what they want to do, what they feel like? So that sort of personal musical relationship for me is one of the models I've used to do that.
As far as individual roles, it's hard to say. I think they are each just such unique musicians [laughs] that it almost ends up being much more about their personalities than their instruments. It's almost more about how the personalities interact than how I see their specific instrumental roles being, which is one of the reasons it ends up being a fairly unusual instrumental line-up. So that's one of the reasons it is that way, because my first thought was, "who do I want? I'm putting together a new band. Who do I want in that band? OK, so that's the instruments I got. [laughs]
AAJ: So one of the things I was going to ask was, you've got two guitarists. You also do a version of "In a Silent Way. Yet there are other precedents beside Miles Davis' groups. Ornette with Prime Time and Henry Threadgill. So was it that you had two guitarists and you were looking at how you might use them, or reflecting on how other people have used them?
THB: Once I'd settled on having two guitarists, I mean those are three of my all-time favorite musical ensemblesyou know Miles' electric period with two guitars, Threadgill's Very Very Circus, and Ornette's Prime Time. So obviously that was there, but I certainly wasn't consciously trying, I wasn't transcribing those records, and trying to figure out how to use those specific ideas. It was more maybe thinking of the sound and the potential of that sound than specific musical or structural things that I took from those composers. Although there is one quote I remember reading think in his [Ornette Coleman's] biography where he was talking about how he wanted to work with a string orchestra but couldn't afford it, but liked the idea of guitars because they had six strings [laughs]. Its almost like two guitars give you an orchestra.
For me my other main project as a leader is SpiderMonkey Strings with a string quartet, and I really like that sound, but I was thinking I want something electric, but also a little bit smaller so I can actually do gigs with it [laughs]. You know so instead of losing a thousand dollars I can only lose a couple of hundred dollars [laughs]. So part of what I was thinking was that it allows a real density and richness of sound, similar to having a string section, but with a different timbre, a different push, a different energy.
AAJ: So I think I've sorted it out now having heard Mary playing with the Braxton sextet+1 last night, but Evan O'Reilly is in the left channel, when he appears. Is that right? And, to generalize, he contributes the washes rather than the picking?
THB: Exactly. I can't remember which side they're mixed to, but we did mix them one side to the other. One of the things I love about playing with the two of them is that they are such incredibly distinctive players. Both wonderful players, but very different styles, very different approaches, which makes them play really well together I think. They both really appreciate what the other one does, which is really nice. Because it can be tricky sometimes if you have two people with the same instrument in the band and luckily in this instance it never is, other than we tease each other constantly about it, but musically it has just been spectacular. It's interesting because they both have a rock background, but even with a rock background the stuff they are interested in is very different.
Evan actually was originally a saxophonist, and in college we were room mates and we practiced together for three hours a day, so we had this really intimate musical relationship. So I have to admit when he switched over to guitar I felt a little betrayed [laughs]. You know like how could you leave me for this rock and roll world? [laughs]. In retrospect it was definitely him finding his own voice in the music he wanted to do, and so it was really great eight years later to find a way to reconnect and bring the world he's into with guitar and a sort of anthemic sound and, not pop sensibility wouldn't be the word, but this almost epic sensibility of rock that he brings into it. Mary's rock thing is a more skronky indie rock personality that she brings into it. So though they are pulling from rock, they are pulling from two very different general ideas of what they are listening to in that space, which is really fun.
AAJ: Just to talk about some of the compositions, "Mm(pf) ... [laughs]
THB: [laughs] That's one of the obscure reference titles
AAJ: ....has a gorgeous melody that emerges only towards the end of the piece and then ends almost on a question mark? You also played this with the Convergence Quartet when you were touring in England. It's a really nice piece. What was the inspiration behind that?
THB: Part of it was this idea I liked of playing with the idea of traditional jazz structure where you play the melody then you improvise off the melody. I like the idea of improvising into a melody, and then having the melody be the climax. The first piece I did like that was on the Braxton duo, a piece called "To Wait, which was similarly structured with the same deal that it just leads up to the melody. So I had played with that structural idea before and really liked it.
Then I have a good friend, Abraham Gomez Delgado, who leads a salsa band called Zemog el Gallo Bueno, which is this totally out there gonzo salsa band, and we lived together in Boston and I was one of the founding members of that band, and still play with them whenever I have a chance. So I wanted to take some of the rhythmic energy that I'd learned from him, some of the montuno structure where you hear Evan's guitar playing this vamp, and build something around that, but in a completely deconstructed manner. Or deconstructed building into it, if that makes sense [laughs]. So that was a piece that reflected those different ideas and experiences. And you always have to leave the audience wanting more, right? So you have to have that, almost, suspension at the end.
AAJ: Absolutely, yeah, it's like "Oh, it's ended (both laugh). Another interesting piece is "Bluebird of Delhi I love the querulous cornet phrase that opens and closes the piece. I know you've recorded music from the Ellington Orchestra before. Why did you choose this particular Duke piece for this record?
THB: I'm a Duke fanatic. Ellington is one of my biggest, biggest heroes and inspirations, even though it might not sound like it most of the time! [laughs]. But he really is. That record, Far East Suite (RCA, 1967) is just one of my favorite records. But it is probably the least covered tune on that album. It's one of my favorite Ellington records, but none of those tunes, with the possible exception of "Isfahan have really become standards.
Sometimes what happens with great composers like Ellington is that it becomes a book of about twenty tunes that people use, but there are two hundred other compositions that are totally brilliant but don't get played as much. So there is definitely that idea to it, and it's just a tune I've always liked a lot and for some reason it just struck me that it would be really fun to do with this band. I really don't know why. It seemed like it could be really fun.
In one sense the arrangement is very close to the original. To go back, one of the things I love about Ellington is that his pieces were never necessarily about playing over set forms, I mean, I keep trying to get away from the headsolohead format, and Ellington would write these long form structures that would incorporate improvisation in all these funny little nooks and crannies in really ingenious ways.
So in playing that composition, I really wanted to play that structure, that sort of long form structure, of how different voices come in, and pass the melody around the band, and people play off of that melody, but do it with my band [laughs]. You know they are very different individuals. Mary sounds very different to Paul Gonsalves, Evan is very different than Clark Terry, it's just very different personalities.
Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet
AAJ: It almost has a sort of Ivesian feel where part of the band is playing the Ellington arrangement and then these skronking guitars come in over the top.
THB: [laughs] Exactly. I told them that was the bit where we wanted the Allman Brothers Band with dueling electric guitars. I just had a lot of fun with that tune, but I still couldn't tell you exactly why I chose it other than what I just said. One other thing is that I love Matt's playing so much as he's able to play in post-John Butcher/ Evan Parker experimental improv, and he can also play like Ben Webster [laughs]. You know, in the pocket, smoky saxophone sound, real beautiful jazz playing, and one of the very few guys I know who can really access both worlds. So of course if you have any excuse to have someone play like Ben Webster on your record you've gotta find it.
AAJ: You studied composition at Wesleyan University and did your masters degree there. Having listened to a lot of your work in a short space of time, it seems to me that you very successfully avoid the head-solos-head format. How important is it to you to make something different? What are you trying to reach through your compositions?
THB: Ultimately, whether it is composition or improvisation it is always just a tool to get to the magic place; it doesn't matter what it is, it's just this moment that we all work for. Rather than think of it as a dichotomy, which still happens unfortunately, where it is either composition or improvisation. And this relates to genre as well; I've been lucky enough to come up in a generation where I have this incredible body of knowledge to pull from. So much has been done in the revolutions of jazz in the past hundred years, in the revolutions in West European music, in the access to musical directions from all over the world. So you have this infinite body of work to pull from. So how do you access those tools so as to not just get caught up in studying them, or being overwhelmed by the amount of information available, and still look for an original means to get to that magic moment [laughs]? That moment, Braxton calls it the is, where it just is.
So for me there is still so much potential. If you are willing, really it is to pursue what the AACM started doing forty years ago, and go beyond the idea that composition and improvisation have to interact in a certain way, and really explore the various ways that it can interact. It's still a realm that was tapped deeply and beautifully by all those musicians and many others over the last forty years, but there is still a lot more potential there. That's what interests me about it. I mean I still have fun by occasionally playing in a more traditional jazz environment. That's really what I came up doing and as a kid I first fell in love with. So I still enjoy doing that but I think for my own music I'm interested in trying to do something else.
AAJ: Some of your compositions are so oblique that they almost sound like improvisations (e.g. "To Wait, from the duo CD with Braxton). From what you've been saying that is a positive outcome for you?
THB: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. Definitely. You shouldn't have to think about what's composed or improvised if you enjoy it. You shouldn't have to think whether it is traditional Chinese music or Beethoven or a Ghanaian drumming choir, it's just something that gives you joy.
Living as a Musician in NYC
AAJ: You mention in your liner notes to The Middle Picture the little picture of the frustrations of making a living as a musician in NYC. Is it possible to make a living as a jazz musician in New York City?
THB: Well I can say that up to this point it hasn't been possible for me [laughs]. There are definitely some people who do it. It's harder because my music doesn't always necessarily fit into an easy jazz definition or box; it makes it a little bit more difficult.
AAJ: I use jazz as shorthand term.
THB: Yeah, yeah, I totally understand. I've got to the point now where it is a nice balance I've found with the other activities I do. Of course it would be a dream to be just able to focus on music, but that hasn't been a reality for many musicians for the past fifty years. Every once in a while someone breaks through and is able to be successful. All power to them, but it is a rare reality, so you have to approach it with the concept of, "Okay, how are we going to make this balance work? And it's going to be a balance unless you are one of the lucky one in two hundred or a thousand or whatever.
AAJ: You mentioned before losing money as a bandleader putting on gigs. Is that actually how it works?
THB: Oh, sadly that is often the reality right now, because almost every gig is a door gig, and if someone is giving you the time and energy for your music you want to treat them at least somewhat respectfully. Even if I'm paying somebody fifty dollars, that's just a pittance of what they are worth, but it's just a basic gesture of respect. Doing that there are very few gigs that pay you enough. Sometimes you get lucky, you get a good door, sometimes you get a decent guarantee. When I get a good paying gig, its always nice because it's a chance to pay back the musicians for all the gigs they do when I can only pay them twenty or fifty dollars. But the basic economy of creative music in New York right now is brutal, it's very unfortunate.
That's always the joke. I used to share a studio with a friend of mine, who is a painter, and so my band would rehearse there, and we had a gig the next day. Everyone had left their gear there so I could bring it to the gig. So I was carrying out the drum kit and the amplifiers and loading up the car. And my friend is helping me, and he says, "So why are you bringing everybody's stuff? "Because I'm the bandleader [laughs]. If you're the bandleader, you carry people's shit and you lose money. And his next question was, "And why do you want to be a bandleader? And that one I wasn't really able to answer. Pure ego, I guess [laughs].
AAJ: That was almost my next question. You must be driven to do what you do. You must love it. When did you realize you were on this perilous path?
THB: By looking at the wonderful example of my mentors. They informed me of the quick road to financial ruin [laughs]. So pretty early. No, but I don't want to overstate it, because the flipside of it is that I do get to do what I love and so that's worth it. You are always gonna make that trade off. I feel it is a really incredible blessing to be able to make this music and pursue a passion that I feel so strongly about that makes me feel so good. You know, that energy you get from people who like your work is so fulfilling. It's definitely a trade off that I'm happy to make. It would be lovely if it was a different kind of world, but it's not, and rather than being sour grapes about it, that's really the way it is. We all sort of figure out ways to make it work and revel in the joys of it, because there are a lot of real joys.
The Cornet and The Mutes
AAJ: Moving on, you are a passionate advocate of the cornethow does that differ from trumpet?
THB: Read any one of my many rants on the internet for the long answer [laughs]. For the short answer, I think it is just a slightly more vocal instrument. For me, it is more of a blending instrument that sits inside the ensemble rather than on top of the ensemble. And for me it is more timbrely flexible. I can bend the notes around more. It is not as accurate as the trumpet, there are definitely trade offs for it. It is not as cutting as the trumpet. For the things I'm interested in musically it really made a lot of sense to me, and it gives me something fun to rant about on the internet [laughs]. We all need something to rant about.
AAJ: You have said that one factor in your composition method is to use gambits developed from exploration of your instrument. Would you care to elaborate on how that works?
THB: Some of it just comes from the individual practice and finding something in my playing that I haven't done before or something that interests me about my playing, and then, what is a musical means to get there? So that can be a compositional thing. It can also be, so here is something I'm enjoying doing on the cornet, how would it sound on a guitar, how would it sound on a violin? So I take musical ideas from my instrument. For me composing and improvising are so tied in together, as the cornet is my primary improvising voice, it's a means to explore ideas and see where it takes me and extrapolate that with an ensemble, or even just extrapolate with myself through a structure to force myself into that place, or create a structure to push myself beyond what I normally do.
AAJ: You use mutes more than any other trumpeter I have seen, and to such expressive effect. How come their use isn't more widespread?
THB: Part of me always wonders that. Mutes give you such an incredible range of colors. I was really influenced by my friend Stephen Haynes, who is a great trumpet player who worked with Bill Dixon in the '70s and '80s, and has gone on to make really wonderful music. We became good friends and collaborators when I was about twenty years-old and we have been working together ever since. And Stephen is a big mute guy too, so we would get together and play with chamber pots, and pieces of paper and whatever we could find [laughs].
A lot of it is related to the cornet too. I think the technical and harmonic demands of bebop tended to lead trumpet players in a certain direction, where you try to keep a consistent sound to navigate this complex system of harmonic changesthe Freddie Hubbard/Woody Shaw model. Beautiful players, some players that are heroes of mine. But personally I was always more interested in the expressionistic model. A lot of it would be pre-bop or post-bop.
Look at the Ellington trumpet players, that band used some mutes. Cootie Williams, Bubber Miley, Rex Stewart: all these players playing with the idea of sound. Then the post-bop people: Lester Bowie, Bill Dixon, where it becomes as much about the sound you're using as the notes you're playing. So for me that is a lot where the mute use comes fromit just gives you a bigger palette. But I can also see that if you are trying to nail the changes to "Cherokee at three hundred beats a minute you don't want to be switching between your wah wah and your bucket mute [laughs].
The Convergence Quartet
AAJ: You recently toured in England as part of the Convergence Quartet with Harris Eisenstadt and two young English musiciansDominic Lash and Alexander Hawkins. How did that come about?
THB: Alex had come to the concert I had done with Braxton at the Royal Festival Hall in 2004.
AAJ: I saw that too. Superb.
THB: Thank you. That was a really fun night, a really fun concert. Then he actually managed to catch me playing with Cecil Taylor in New York the following year. He caught me on my two gigs that year where I was playing in front of a big audience [laughs]. So I fooled him. So he was interested in collaborating so he sent me some of his music, and he is a very excellent pianist. Dominic had met Harris at a festival in England and so they had this idea of bringing us both over to form a collaborative quartet to do a tour. They were able to line up a little bit of support to bring us over.
It was really lovely, really excellent. It was nice because I had done one of Harris' records about three years ago [Jalolu (CIMP, 2004)] and stayed friends but hadn't had an opportunity to work together after that, so it was really a nice chance to musically reconnect with Harris. Alex and Dominic are excellent musicians and set up a really nice tour where we did seven gigs over the course of ten days. It was also nice for me to get to spend some time in England, as every other time I had been there had been in and out over the course of 24 or 48 hours, so that was really excellent and I could meet some musicians and people on the scene.
AAJ: It was a bit different from your usual way of working, working with people close to you anyway. Was there any risk involved?
THB: It was definitely part of moving out of my comfort zone, but I feel that is a very good thing for me. You know you always want to put yourself in a different context. And frankly the reality is also to do with the economics, so people might like me enough for one plane ticket over to Europe, but people rarely like me enough for six plane tickets over to Europe [laughs]. So you have to open yourself. That is also one of the beauties of this musicthe chance to meet new people, have new experiences, and play with people from different backgrounds or different scenes. So I'm always open to making music with new people, even if it is different to my usual compositional model, but is definitely part of the musical, experiential life model.
AAJ: Switching tack again now, who have been the big influences on your style and on your playing?
THB: A lot of the most important influences for me have been the people I've studied with or worked with. One of my first teachers, and still one of my best friends and regular collaborators, is a great trombonist and composer named Bill Lowe, who I was lucky enough to meet when I was about fifteen. And then of course Anthony and the work I've had with him. Also the people in my band: Tomas, Evan, Mary, Matt, Jessica, and people I collaborate with.
I was lucky enough to have a weekly gig in Boston for four years with the Fully Celebrated Orchestra, led by Jim Hobbs, who is an amazing composer and alto saxophonist, with Timo Shanko on bass and Django Carranza on drums. To get the chance to play once a week with these incredible musicians, that shaped me deeply. So somehow those personal experiences end up shaping you. I listen to Miles Davis; I listen to Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Rex Stewart and Bill Dixon. All those people are huge influences on me, but the deepest influences often come from the people I was lucky enough to work with.
AAJ: What has Bill Dixon meant to you?
THB: He's such a brilliant trumpet player, and not just as a musician, as he has such a unique and strong aesthetic sense in general. So that is obviously very inspiring. I've been lucky enough to work with him a little bit and to get to know him and he has just been incredibly generous and supportive with me. So to have one of your heroes be nice to you is particularly positive [laughs]. Also a lot of the musicians I've worked with came out of the Bennington School, where he taught for years, I mentioned Stephen Haynes for instance. So I never studied with Bill, but I feel I got a lot of his teaching second-hand in a way.
AAJ: You mentioned playing with Cecil Taylor in his orchestra. What have you taken from that experience? How has that affected you?
THB: Very deeply [laughs]. Cecil is such a master of his art and such an otherworldly performer in terms of energy and creativity. So anytime you have a chance to tap into that just lifts you tremendously high. It is very, very inspiring place to work. I've always been very interested in large ensemble music too. So I'm really lucky to be able to do the large ensemble music with Anthony, Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor and see how different it is. See how they are all dealing with these different ideas of how do you preserve individual freedom, yet have structure in a large ensemble organization. So that has been fascinating for me to see what Cecil's methods are. And obviously it has just been so much fun to get to work with your heroesthat is just a thrill, so there's also that part of it.
THB: [laughs] You nailed it man, it's the trickster persona. I'm a mythology nerd, you know, the Joseph Campbell books and the whole idea of human archetypes as represented in mythology. My favorite archetypal character is the tricksterin-between good and evil, in-between mortal and god, the force of creativity in a way.
The trickster can be defined as the force of human creativity, but also with a sense of humor and also a sense of mischief. That's always very much appealed to me [laughs], so SpiderMonkey I just named after my two favorite tricksters, which is Anasi the Spider from West Africa and the Monkey King from China. There is this whole series of extended Buddhist parables from the fifteenth century about this wild cast of characters led by this Monkey King, this monkey with incredible powers who has been exiled to Earth, who has to lead a Buddhist monk and a crew with a giant pig, an ogre, and a dragon turned into a horse. And they have to obtain these secret scrolls. It's a long narrative, sort of like Robin Hood, a classic narrative of China. I just love that story so it is named after that.
AAJ: You have recently started a blog, giving valuable insights into your music, what made you start and how do you find the time?
THB: What made me start it is that I'm a loudmouth [laughs]. I guess part of it is that I found myself complaining that the discursive standard of creative music is so low; we need to raise the standard of the debate. Or people never talk about the things you want to talk about. So it gets to the point where, "Okay, do something about it. .
The technology exists now for there to be sea changes in just even what the debate is, or who's taking part in the debate, so that is sort of exciting to have the chance to do that. As far as finding the time, it also came out of the fact that I would find myself writing long emails to friends. My sister is actually a writer and a really excellent novelist, so I think there is a little bit of writing in my blood.
The process of having to write something down forces you to think about it in a critical way and helps you really shape your thoughts. I've actually found it very helpful for myself just to think about, "Okay why did I like that concert? Or, "Why am I pursuing this project? And forcing myself to articulate that has been very helpful for my own artistic interests and growth. And then the idea that it might be helpful for anyone who is interested in my music is excellent. That's obviously a big bonus. It's a fun and exciting development for methat chance to have a platform to express some ideas is really positive.
Working with Anthony Braxton
AAJ: I see more and more musicians setting up blogs, and you follow links which take you to more, and I think it is very positive to be able to hear from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Let's move on to talk about your work with Anthony Braxton now. In the liner notes to 4 Compositions (Ulrichsberg) 2005: Phonomanie VIII (Leo, 2006) you say of Braxton's music, "There is no other music I play that I feel so completely free to express and explore my own musical identity and ideas and creativity, yet again, no other music that I play is so clearly imprinted with the composer's identity. Would you like to explain that paradox a bit more?
THB: If I could I would win a MacArthur [Fellowship Grant], you know [laughs]. For me that is one of the things I find so exciting working with Anthony. It's something he's spent forty years working at, so it's hard for me to even figure. I recognize it's there, I'm not sure I can figure the exact DNA of it. But a lot of it has to do with the musical trust. First of all having the dedication and inspiration to create a huge body of materials, which Anthony has done like nobody else: he's written more notes than anyone I can imagine. But to have the dedication to write those notes, but then trust the musicians to play with how they want to use those notes. To have both sides of that coin equally represented is so rare. To have the composerly dedication, to put in the sweat and work of creating these materials, but then to have the improviser's trust in the moment, have the improviser's trust in the other musicians. And that for me is just so unique, and one of the most unique things about his work.
AAJ: I was struck at the gig last night [Braxton's sextet+1 at the Iridium in New York] that at any given moment anybody could be directing where the music was going.
THB: That's what is incredibly exciting about his musicit really upsets the traditional hierarchies of music. It shouldn't be about one dude with a stick standing in front of a hundred other people, who have to follow that guy's stick, or one dude with a pen. So I love that idea that there can be multiple leaders, and that is part of what I was saying about how you can explore your own identity. I mean in what other band as a side person can you explore your ideas as a leader? That's so rare. I think one of the reasons he has been such an incubator of young musicians is that he gives them a chanceoften when you work with such a strong charismatic leader, you get handcuffed into that leader's ideas or directives, but this is a leader that actually gives you a chance to lead which is really wonderful [laughs].
AAJ: Nicole Mitchell says, in the liner notes to 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (Firehouse 12, 2007), that if you intellectualize what you need to do to play Braxton's music, you can't do it. It reminded me of an article by David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer, which essentially said that to play at that level you have to be doing it beneath the conscious level. Is it that way with Braxton's music as well when you are up on the bandstand?
THB: One of the things that's fun about Anthony's music is that even at its most instinctual it still engages your intellect, because you are still making conscious choices, still responding to people, still giving things for other people to respond to. But I think like all really great music it has that point at which it's really helpful to have had years of technique and studying and dedicated practice and rudimentary work. But at the point, at the moment, if you think about any of that you're lost [laughs]. You just have to be in it. You just have to respond.
That's true of the best jazz stuff too: if you are thinking too hard about what are the notes in a D sharp 7 chord, by the time you think, "Oh that's the scale I should play, , the chords already gone [laughs]. The whole point of the technique is to get yourself to the point where as much material as possible is accessible at any time, and certainly Anthony's music is a beautiful example of that.
AAJ: As a longtime follower of Anthony Braxton's music, it seems to me that his current working groups [The Twelvetet, Sextet, and similar] are part of another peak of creativity in his output, matching some of his earlier classic groups like the seventies quartets and quartet with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway. Does it seem like this from the inside as well?
THB: I find all of the work he's done is so interesting, I wouldn't be in a position to say, "Oh this is the best stuff, "that's not as good stuff, because I think I get so much from all of it that it would be hard for me to make a judgmental call. Being inside of it is, of course, incredibly exciting [laughs]. It always feels new and fresh and vibrant, at a level I'm sure those other groups must have felt. So there is certainly that energy to it that is really quite thrilling to be part of.
AAJ: For me Braxton's Composition Notes were revelatory, because you can listen to the music and it is of course wonderful, but then you discover the intent behind it and the underpinning concepts and it adds a whole other dimension. Do you receive that underlying intent when you perform the pieces or is the notation enough to deal with?
THB: One of the things I always find interesting about Anthony's music is that he is always working so clearly on specific ideas. You know, sometimes you play music and you ask why does this music exist or what's the point of this music? And his is always so clear in its intent, "Oh you are trying to figure this idea out, or, "you are working with this structure, oh I see how you built it, and his composition notes are a beautiful part of that. There is incredibly complex architecture, yet there is a real transparency to it.
So you always get that sense playing the music. But at the same time, as we were just saying, there is always that point at which you are not thinking about it. The composition is definitely designed to put you somewhere and you are definitely there, but if you stop to think about what got you there, you almost fall off where you are [laughs]. It's that funny line between the conscious and the unconscious. Now I think he has very explicitly played with this, but like any great music there is also this idea of what you want to think about, and there are the moments when you don't want to be thinking at all, you are just at the point where you are just doing.
AAJ: You organized the world premiere of Braxton's "Composition 103 for seven costumed trumpeters. Braxton must have wondered if that composition would ever get played. How did that come about?
THB: It was just one of those pieces that as a trumpet player he always mentioned to me, and I always really wanted to do it. And then this guy John McDonagh, who's another trumpet player, started coming up to Wesleyan and I lent him the score so he could copy out the parts as he was also really interested. So we put together a group of really excellent trumpet players and almost did it for our own fun first because it was a really great piece to play and getting to hang out with six other trumpet players. Then for Anthony's sixtieth birthday Andrew Raffo Dewar helped him organize the series of concerts at Wesleyan. So that seemed like a really natural place to premiere it. So that worked out. I'm actually going to be one of the curators of the Festival of New Trumpet Music this year, so hopefully I will get that on it and we will be able to do the New York premiere.
AAJ: What makes a satisfying performance for you?
THB: Ultimately it's about when you get there you know it. That momentwhen you are not thinking about anything, where you are just completely empty almost, where you are in the music and you feel the energy from the rest of the band and audience. That moment where who cares what tune you are playing, what kinda music you are playing. It's just the moment is so rich.
In some ways it is that Buddhist sense of being completely free of attachments. Why you meditate is to find that moment where you are free of everything and the real power of that feeling is where the music is the most exciting. You are just in this moment with people. It's not about what notes you are playing, or trying to sound good, or trying to look good [laughs]. It's just about the music happening. It's hard to explain, and it doesn't happen every time you play. There are other times you play where you get a lot out of it, where there might be some beautiful music or you might have had a great time, but there are those times with the magical moment which you are always going for.
AAJ: I know what you mean. Where you lose yourself. And I guess it is that more powerful where you achieve that with others too.
THB: Definitely. And it is ultimately, Why do human beings have art? Why did we evolve from the monkeys to do these crazy things with pieces of metal and sticks? I really think there is a need as a human being to have that moment of freedom. It's a real essential. I think we would go crazy without it, [laughs], and people get there different ways. Some people might get there jogging, or reading a book. Some people might get there selling millions of dollars on the stock market, I don't know [laughs]. But I think art is one of the most beautiful ways to find that moment, so that's what we are going for.
AAJ: Your sister is a published novelist [Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Madeleine is Sleeping], yourself an increasingly high profile musicianwas there something in your upbringing which encouraged creativity?
THB: Yes. Both our parents were very interested in the arts and supportive of us in pursuing the arts, and luckily had the means to support us. So I was able to have trumpet lessons, which was very lucky. But they believed in it not just as enrichment, but believed in it enough to support it as a possible career path. It's always very scary to have your kids go into the arts I think [laughs]. So real credit to both of them for being willing to let us explore that because you want your children to have security, and neither novelist or jazz musician are professions of security [laughs]. But they believed in us enough to keep being encouraging, so that was very powerful.
Also, my mother's house growing up was a very vibrant and creative place. We had a lot of opera singers and artists and various people stay there at various times. So being around artists and performers and seeing the lives they lived and the richness they got to experience was very inspiring for both of us. We have had a very close relationship and actively encouraged each other. She married a film-maker and I married a dancer, so we kept it going [laughs]. That's definitely where we felt more comfortable around other creative people and luckily we grew up in an environment like that and felt in love with it enough to want to stay in it.
AAJ: Finally then, what are your plans for the future?
THB: I'm lucky enough to be involved in a lot of musical projects I'm excited about, so I'll keep pursuing the ones I'm leading and the ones I'm a sideman in. Jason Kao Hwang is recording a new record next week actually and that is a really fun quartet to be a part of.
AAJ: I saw you at Vision Festival last year.
THB: That was a great night. [Roscoe Mitchell, Barre Phillips and Joe Morris; Charles Gayle; and William Parker and Rashied Ali].
AAJ: Awesome and you were right up there.
THB: Yeah, it was like, "We're on this bill, cool. I'm trying out some new ideas. The Whitney Museum asked me to do something for a Sun Ra tribute they're doing, so I'm putting together a large ensemble for that which will be interesting. And beyond that I will be doing my first tour as a leader in Europe next spring, which I'm looking forward to, and then also doing some collaborative stuff with various folks, just the usual musician stuff.
And I'm doing some interdisciplinary projects: I'm writing a new piece for SpiderMonkey Strings using text from my sister's novel, I'm doing the music for a play, and I'm working on a duo collaboration with my wife, choreographer Rachel Bernsen. (You get to see me dance in that one!). I feel the last year has been about table setting, setting up a lot of projects, getting these records out, starting this record label. I feel in some ways it has been 90% music business and 10% music, so I'm hoping this next year that the 90% business will have paid off enough so I can get to 60/40 [laughs] just to get to work on the projects I've been setting up a little more. And hopefully there will be some things happening that I don't know about [laughs].
Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet, The Middle Picture (Firehouse 12, 2007)
Taylor Ho Bynum & Tomas Fujiwara, True Events (482 Music, 2007)
Anthony Braxton, 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (9CDs + DVD) (Firehouse 12, 2007)
Jason Kao Hwang, Edge (Asian Improv, 2006)
Matana Roberts Quartet, The Calling (Utech, 2006)
Zemog el Gallo Bueno, Cama de la Conga (Aagoo, 2006)
Anthony Braxton, Sextet (Victoriaville) 2005 (Victo, 2006)
Anthony Braxton, 4 Compositions (Ulrichsberg) 2005, Phonomanie VIII (Leo, 2006)
Taylor Ho Bynum & SpiderMonkey Strings, Other Stories (Three Suites) (482 Music, 2005)
Anthony Braxton, Quintet (London) 2004 Live at the Royal Festival Hall (Leo, 2005)
Cecil Taylor, All the Notes (DVD, 2004)
Harris Eisenstadt Quintet, Jalolu (CIMP, 2004)
Jim Hobbs & the Fully Celebrated Orchestra, Lapis Exilis (Skycap, 2004)
Anthony Braxton/Taylor Ho Bynum, Duets (Wesleyan) 2002 (Innova, 2002)
Taylor Ho Bynum/Eric Rosenthal, Cenote (Cadence Jazz, 2002)
The Fully Celebrated Orchestra, Marriage of Heaven and Earth (Innova, 2002)
Anthony Braxton, Six Compositions (GTM) 2001 (Rastascan, 2002)
Assif Tsahar, Embracing the Void (Hopscotch, 2002)
Alan Silva, The Sound Visions Orchestra (Eremite, 2001)
Song/Newton/Bynum, Trio Ex Nihilo (Buzz, 2000)
Taylor Ho Bynum/Eric Rosenthal, and only life my lush lament (Sachimay, 1999)
Paradigm Shift, The RAW Field Recordings (Tautology, 1999)
Anthony Braxton, 4 Compositions (Washington DC) (Braxton House, 1999)
Joe Fonda, Full Circle Suite (CIMP, 1999)
Anthony Braxton, Composition No. 102 (Braxton House, 1998)