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Taylor Ho Bynum plays with a sharp clarity which indicates that he knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. Even when he's rapidly spraying notes, somewhat reminiscent of Donald Ayler, he tongues some of the notes instead of merely letting his fingers run wild on his cornet valves as he blows. It indicates this isn't just random energy gone wild. A master of extended technique on his horn, he emits some incredible intervallic leaps in a fast blow, deceptively making it sound like a high harmonic that can naturally be felt on the horn.
Apparent Distance came together through from a 2010 New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Bynum states in the liner notes that he wanted to blur the lines between composition and improvisation and "upend listeners' expectations in other ways: circular melodies without beginnings or ends... transitions that are simultaneously jarring and organic." Considering his extensive performance career, not to mention his affiliation with Anthony Braxton (Bynum serves as president of the saxophonist's Tri-Centric Foundation) anyone familiar with the cornetist should probably come to expect such vision from him. And this music delivers it, wrapping such adventure in an approach that still manages to swing hard.
"Shift" opens with a couple minutes of unaccompanied Bynum, almost serving as an introduction to his cornet approach, sounding puckish and bright, along with some smears and squirts. It becomes more of a chamber ballad when Jim Hobbs (alto saxophone) and Bill Lowe (bass trombone, and later tuba) join in after a few minutes. Along with their wildest moments, it shows the sextet can be lyrical.
The piece is considered a four-part suite but each section has several different movements of its own. "Strike" follows "Shift" immediately, with Ken Filiano hitting a groovy vamp that adds an extra beat with each repetition, and then following it by subtracting it in the next series of riffs. Hobbs blows in the upper register while Mary Halvorson bangs out chords that threaten the foundation of the riff, eventually turning into interstellar space noise. This breakdown turns the presentation over to Lowe, who whips out the tuba, growling as he drones, methodically. When the group returns with some gentle but jarring intervals, Filiano bows his bass in the upper register like a cello.
The 20-minute "Source" is a virtual suite-within-in-a-suite, and it begins with one of Halvorson's strongest solos yet. In a lot of her work, she uses some sort of effect pedal that bends the pitch, which as great as it sounds, can become pretty similar each time. Here, she manages to blend that effect in with her mutant fretwork in such a manner that sounds unprecedented. Hobbs follows her with another wailing solo that could serve as a textbook lesson on how to play free jazz with passion. It makes me want to hear more from this guy.
"Layer" also crams a lot into the confines of nine minutes, although "crams" might be the wrong word because like everything else on the album, nothing comes across as excessive or overstuffed. This music has plenty of room to breathe freely. Bynum gets back in the spotlight here, at one point shifting from high scrapes down to clear bass notes in a matter of seconds. Gradually the sextet begins playing what sounds like a funeral procession, complemented by alto squonks, frenzied bass bowing and - in the final moments - fuzzed out power chords from Halvorson.
The lines that Bynum says he wanted to blur don't actually seem that blurry to anyone who enjoys music like this. But that only goes to show that composer and ensemble were successful with the execution of this suite. It's an amazing work by an amazing group of players.