Sunday, March 13, 2011

Live Music Keeps One Alive

Don't know about you but there are times I am afraid to turn on the news or open the morning papers.  Tragedies abound, many of them man-made and, often, there is no recourse, nothing one can do to make it better. Yes, we can (and should) donate money or supplies at times of famine, natural disaster and other horrific events.

Music has always been my escape valve; when my sister died, I played the Bach "Cello Suites" while writing her eulogy. Sadly, the older one gets, it seems that bad news often outweighs the good.

This week, with the horrible news from Japan amidst the continuing political unrest at home and abroad, I really felt the need for "live" music. Luckily, the Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet decided to play a "warm-up" gig before he headed off to Europe for 5 weeks and then entering the studio later in the Spring. The group assembled in The Big Room, a new performance space in New Haven and proceeded to blow the roof off the place (figuratively, of course.)  Joining Bynum (pictured above) was trombonist Bill Lowe, alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs, guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Tomas Fujiwara.  The sextet were using the evening to revisit "Apparent Distance", a long, multi-sectioned composition that Bynum created thanks to a grant from Chamber Music America/The Doris Duke Foundation.  They warmed up with a piece dedicated to trombonist Lowe (partially in honor of his 65th birthday), "Look Below", a hard-bop romp where everyone got the chance to "strut their stuff."  Ms. Halvorson's wonderfully angular guitar lines worked well with Hobb's high-energy saxophone and Filiano's agile bass lines.  The birthday celebrant blew long and hard lines that swung mightily atop Fujiwara's active brush work.  Bynum's cornet sputtered, spattered, whooshed, and danced above the fray.
"Apparent Distance" opened with a long unaccompanied introduction from the composer.  Utilizing "circular breathing" (a method in which the musicians must breathe through his nose while continuing to expel air through his mouth, allowing him to play a constant tone on the instrument while inhaling), Bynum made all sorts of noises, from short melodies to sputters to snorting and more. Once the ensemble entered, they played a long, flowing, melody that opened into numerous solo sections.  Hobbs is one of the more energetic alto players one will ever hear  - he absolutely "wails" on the sax, with so much force there are moments onje expects he will just explode.  Ms. Halvorson played fascinating counterpoint on several of the solos and created her own statement, manipulating her foot pedals, bending strings, varying her volume.  Everyone got the spotlight and all played well. At one point, the cornet, saxophone and trombone played sans rhythm section, weaving lines in and around each other.  This is the piece they will record in May and one will be able to hear how the sections flow together as well as how the piece continually moves forward from the opening statement.
For an encore, the Sextet played the blues.  "Bowie" hit hard and low, with a "beat" that struck the listener in the chest, making the body shake.  Hobbs and Ms. Halvorson combined for a squalling duo, both wailing over the beat, the saxophonist making the most harsh yet fascinating sounds.  Lowe started his solo by digging into the slow beat but the rhythm section had other ideas, doubling the pace, lowering the volume and "swinging" through the changes.  Filiano played a lovely solo (yes, the bass can make lovely sounds), filled with melodic fragments, overtones and harp-like flourishes.

Was it fun? Absolutely!  My "blues" melted away as the Sextet wailed into the evening.  Harsh at times? O yes, there were moments when noise supplanted melody but the music never lost its way.  The bad stuff is still there, happening all the time but, for 75 minutes, I had the good fortune to forget it all and enjoy great creative music.

Here's a video from last summer of the band hard at play.

Click on this link to watch the video in full size.

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