Cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum is, hands down, one of the most important and interesting musicians of his generation. Bynum is just a few years shy of forty, but he's already led or co-led a number of innovative groups, as well as put in years of apprenticeship with pianist Cecil Taylor, trumpeter Bill Dixon, and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. Bynum's music is a significant force in keeping jazz vital, and he also supports the jazz community via his positions as president of the Tri-Centric Foundation, vice-president and curator of The Festival of New Trumpet Music, and co-founder and producer of Firehouse 12 Records. If the statement "Jazz is dead" ever raises its impertinent head, lovers of this music can just point to Bynum and keep walking.
Bynum's release Apparent Distance is special on several counts. It's a four-part suite that was commissioned through a 2010 New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and it features some of Bynum's closest musical compatriots, including his mentor Bill Lowe on bass trombone and tuba, Jim Hobbs on alto saxophone, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Ken Filiano on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. The suite is in four parts — "Shift," "Strike," "Source," and "Layer" — which altogether comprise about forty-five minutes of captivating music. The suite moves through many moods and instrumental combinations, yielding moments of sublime delicacy as well as intricate layering and joyful cacophony. Bynum is a self-declared Duke Ellington fanatic, and this project allowed him to emulate the great master by writing parts specifically for these outstanding musicians who he knows so well. It's not always possible to tell what's written and what's improvised — that's part of Bynum's aspiration for this project — but each musician gets plenty of solo time, and clearly Bynum knows how to create space for them to shine.
Bynum's soloing is especially pleasurable. Anyone who thinks the cornet is a quaint artifact of early twentieth-century jazz should listen to Bynum and think again: he simultaneously nods to the past and creates the instrument afresh, curving and squiggling and corkscrewing notes into original configurations that sound exactly right. In a Boston Globe interview, Bynum explains his attraction to the instrument: "I was trying to improvise as much with sound as with notes, and the cornet lends itself to that. It doesn't have the trumpet's accuracy or brightness, but it has a timbral flexibility that gives you a whole other set of possibilities.'' Indeed, Bynum's cornet gives the suite a unique sound, an aural flavor that's immensely pleasing.
Clearly one of the factors that make Bynum so compelling is the way he combines his love for older forms of jazz with his finger-on-the pulse knowledge of avant-garde jazz. The result in Apparent Distance is music that is both graceful and wild: Bynum's intelligence provides the suite with an invisible architecture, which serves as a foundation for gorgeous improvisational flights. This is beautiful music that's also agreeably challenging, representing yet another outstanding contribution by this modern innovator.
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