Album Review: Anthony Braxton & Taylor Ho Bynum – Duo (Amherst) 2010

NBH902-148x131

Tri-Centric Foundation (DVD with free audio download)

Recorded: 22 Sep 2010; Released 13 Aug 2013

Personnel:

  • Anthony Braxton (alto, sopranino, soprano & baritone saxes, compositions)
  • Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn, pocket cornet, trumpbone, piccolo and bass trumpets, compositions)

It is amazing that this is the first live performance that Anthony Braxton and Taylor Ho Bynum ever did together as a duo. The two musicians have a long history: Ho Bynum studied with Braxton at Wesleyan University, as is well known, and the two have worked together in numerous contexts ever since, including ensembles of 3 to 13 musicians, large orchestras, opera, and numerous other projects. In 2002, they recorded a set of duos together in the studio, but they never appeared live until this date. This is a very special encounter. The earlier duo record is a meeting between master and protege. But by the time this recording was made, Ho Bynum had a decade of performance and composition under his belt, making this a duo of two of the great virtuosos of our time, displaying their immense talents before an eager audience at University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Both sets, and especially the first set, begin with a tenderness that one might expect between two old friends. The set up of the stage itself tells us something of their goal: rather than standing side-by-side facing the audience, they appear on either side of the stage, facing each other. This is a conversation, not a contest–the two are reunited after some time apart and each has come with something to say in reunion.

Both musicians contribute compositions to the performance. Each set begins with two pieces by Braxton, then works by Ho Bynum follow. The flow between pieces is seamless as the two cycle through their many instruments which they have lined up on the stage nearer to the audience. Braxton and Ho Bynum, masters of woodwinds and brass, respectively, have a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks from which to draw, though there is no hint of hesitation as they jump from one instrument to another in succession. Each set lasts approximately 45 minutes.

The first set opens with a slow escalation into beautiful scales from both musicians as their sound flows through and around each other like a friendly embrace. The two also greet each other with their bodily movements: Braxton forward and back, and Ho Bynum in his signature wheel-like rotations that propel him side to side and up and down simultaneously. It is fortunate that the performance has been released on DVD, for the physical movements of the players highlight the sound and the connectivity. There are brilliant moments of discord that broaden the emotional palate of the songs, which, in turn, draw out the tranquil sections all the more. The opening section escalates into a fiery exchange between Ho Bynum’s bass trumpet and Braxton’s soprano that eventually shifts to flugelhorn and alto. They meld into thoughtful whispers, then Ho Bynum surges into disciplined staccato over the mellower Braxton.

With Ho Bynum moving to cornet, they shift into a propulsive, yet tender undercurrent, while gradually growing bolder and bolder. Rising further and further, they break into microtones, one of the most subtly brilliant moments of the set. The control of such tones is exceedingly difficult, but they do so without wavering. Then the song shifts noticeably into a lyrical, ballad-like solo of Braxton still on alto, with Ho Bynum following with muted cornet, relaxing the mood. While the first set has many moments of sophisticated interaction, one of the most interesting features Ho Bynum on trumpbone, full of energy, and Braxton on baritone sax, where just the movement of keys elicits a percussive feel over the more fluid brass. They eventually shift to sopranino producing voice-like utterances over Ho Bynum’s aqueous trumpet.

The second set begins with a similar feeling to the first, but develops faster into conversation as the two share stories and experiences with one another. The first fifteen minutes of this set features a general shift from upper register to lower (with the exception being Braxton begins on alto, shifts to soprano, and then descends alongside Ho Bynum). This movement evokes a great deal of initial energy, then slowly mellows into deeper, broader tones, though not without bursts of excitement, such as moments of Braxton on baritone with the triumphant Ho Bynum surging on cornet.

Again the two players set off toward a new horizon, escalating gradually until they reach a momentary climax in microtones. Then, after a brief repose, they surge again, this time with Ho Bynum laying a base with muted cornet–producing an earthy groan–with Braxton making sharp attacks on sopranino over the top. Then, muteless, the two exchange a series of piercing exclamations–hitting the exact same tone in succession–such that it is difficult even to determine which of them is playing at a particular moment. This amazing display of unity crowns the performance before receding into a tender exchange on alto and trumpbone into microtones and other small, subtle sounds to the end.

The music produced on this record sets the bar high for future duo performances. The two musicians seem not at all concerned with somehow besting each other, but rather build an amazing vocabulary of interaction together. They each build off the mood of the other, offering friendly, affectionate interchanges between the once master and student, now colleagues and friends. The two build music together with such a great deal of familiarity that they manage to relax, almost immediately, and set to the task of delving into their own sound and that of the other, to discover and define new methods of expression and interaction.

One of the most impressive things about this record is the ability the musicians have for maintaining particular moods or emotions while moving from one instrument to the next. Their expansive repertoire allows them so much versatility that stretches beyond one instrument, style, or composition. They also exert amazing control of their sound as they move between composed ideas and improvising within those contexts.

These are two musicians with a great deal to say. The hour and a half of music contained on this album gives the listener an enormous amount to digest. But despite its myriad complexities, the music leaves us with the feeling that the conversation between Braxton and Ho Bynum has only begun and that they have a great deal more to say to one another. We can only hope that more moments like this one are captured for the rest of us to enjoy.

For those interested in obtaining copies of the record, you may order them directly from the Tri-Centric Foundation here.

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