Dec 31 2016
Bird is the Worm 2016 Album of the Year: Taylor Ho Bynum – “Enter the PlusTet” (Firehouse 12 Records)
The very first reaction I had to this album was anger. And it was directed at Taylor Ho Bynum.
The moment it becomes feasible, I am going to buy a self-driving car. I love listening to music in the car. And when it’s music that I intend to write about, even better, because something about the sense of freedom that comes from driving, of a body in motion, it seems to free up my mind to write with more of the creativity and openness that typically only shakes free when I’m writing fiction. But in the car, I feel like I’m able to listen better, and, consequently, writing about music under those conditions becomes a more enjoyable and effective task. Countless times I’ve pulled over to the side of the road to scribble down a first draft of an album write-up because the inspiration hit me in the middle of traffic. For Bynum’s 2016 release Enter the PlusTet, I was just pulling into a parking lot when his album first drew my anger. It was nearing the three minute mark that a passage of brutal dissonance caused me to look down at the stereo and think, god, do I have to endure another hour of this?
Look, I knew what I was getting into with Bynum’s work. He’s a musician who loves how improvising away from the structure of a composition can lead to some inspired moments of creativity. He often puts a lot of moving parts in play, and never really seems too concerned if they all fit together or act cohesively or play nice, even. His music sounds like a metalsmith’s installation art… rough pieces of steel fused together in uneven and awkward dimensions and resulting in a vague shape that has the strangely beguiling nature of interpreting clouds crossing the sky. But make no mistake, you’re gonna get more than your daily serving of dissonance.
So I was sitting there in my car, fuming at what I was hearing and wondering if I shouldn’t just sit there and get the whole thing over with. I wasn’t going to stop listening, and since that opening track is over twenty-one minutes long, I didn’t think it wise to break it up between a run into the pet store for cat food. I mean, the music was compelling in its way, but who the hell would want to listen to an hour of this? But things got a little bit better. The dissonance ebbed a bit so that vibraphone and trombone could get in a few words. The tone was still an angry one, but at least the vague shape of a melody could be discerned within the fog of dissonance and chaos. When a viola solo swept across the stage, my interest piqued, especially in how it meshed with the rhythmic flurries from drums.
The improvisations, when viewed in fragments and not as a whole, they had some neat stuff going on, but it wasn’t a huge departure of things I’d heard before in similar works, just done better. Better than most, actually. But who the fuck would really want to listen to this? Me, I like compelling music, even if I don’t particularly enjoy it. It’s why my Best of list looks different than my Favorites list… the music has to be pleasing, but it doesn’t have to please me personally. I want to hear stuff that’s interesting, a work with a compelling nature and plenty of personality, and it should either inspire or surprise me… preferably both.
And then Bynum’s ensemble did just that. It happened at the ten-minute halfway mark of that same opening track. After a series of interesting solos and group interplay that hadn’t really strayed that far from the opening dissonance, the ensemble had reached a crossroads. They could either keep to the same chaotic tone for the second half of the piece or they could use those solos as an excuse to go off in an entirely new direction. And when the level of dissonance began to stretch out to a new plateau (one I wasn’t particularly looking forward to), the ensemble surprised me by illuminating that the crossroads had a third path. It cut straight down the center of the other two. The dissonance subsided but still had a presence. The cadence from the solos and the way they wound about the accompaniment also was there. But both of those predominant sounds melted away and revealed a brand new facet by entering a gorgeous melodic phase when everything came together like a complex pop music chorus, something that could’ve been rooted in the Great American Songbook or, perhaps, something from FM radio today. And not only was this a lovely thing to hear, but it put a different spin on everything that had come before. And more importantly, perhaps, is that it also provided a fresh context for the music that followed.
It meant that space-y rock explosiveness and salt-of-the-earth blues could shift imagery back and forth and somehow make sense. It meant that the distance between avant-garde ferocity and classic big band and moonlit ballads could be traversed with a sudden abruptness or the greatest subtlety and either change had a certain, strange logic to how it went down. It meant whatever alien landscape Bynum and his PlusTet wanted to create, all of it would be accessible and no matter how much the scenery might change, it all belonged together. The fact that much of this effect comes about as the result of improvisation just makes the accomplishment that much greater.
And it’s that aspect of Enter the PlusTet that embodies what makes this album special: The grand statements, the raw emotional power, and the inspirations and surprises that come from improvised music. There was a songbook in place, but one that allowed the musicians to be free to take everything they’d ever learned and experienced up to that moment and express it in the next moment and all the moments that followed. It’s why every bit of this music resonates so intensely, and why the music sounds so big even during its quieter passages. The humanity of the music shines through strong and bright, a feeling that there is a perfect confluence of creativity that runs a mainline from the heart of the musicians to the last fading notes to reach the listeners ears.
I had listened to the entire album twice before finally getting out of my car, and any anger I’d felt initially was long forgotten.
The Bird is the Worm 2016 Album of the Year.
Your album personnel: Taylor Ho Bynum (composer, conductor, cornet), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Stephanie Richards (trumpet), Vincent Chancey (French horn), Steve Swell (trombone), Bill Lowe (bass trombone, tuba), Jim Hobbs (alto saxophone), Ingrid Laubrock (soprano & tenor saxophones), Matt Bauder (tenor & baritone saxophones), Jason Kao Hwang (violin, viola), Tomeka Reid (cello), Ken Filiano (bass), Mary Halvorson (guitar), Jay Hoggard (vibraphone) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums).
Released on Firehouse 12 Records.
Jazz from NYC.
Read more about the album with my Best of Bandcamp Jazz column on The Bandcamp Daily (LINK).