Aych: Jim Hobbs, Taylor Ho Bynum & Mary Halvorson at JACK Arts 16 Sep 2013

The group Aych, composed of alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, and guitarist Mary Halvorson, appeared in a rare performance last night at JACK Arts. Halvorson is well known on the New York scene as a daring player possessing rare talent and incredible musical vision. Ho Bynum, who formerly resided in Brooklyn, has made major contributions to the scene in New York, though he is now based in New Haven, splitting his time between Boston and his former home. Hobbs is perhaps less well-known in New York, but the Boston-based player has immense talent and a fresh voice on his instrument. The venue of JACK Arts, on Waverly Avenue in Clinton Hill (Brooklyn), has emerged as a new dynamic arts space featuring cutting edge dance, performance, and music. This concert was the debut of a new season,  heralding a list of exciting upcoming performances.

Within the ambient ice-blue light that twinkled upon the tinfoil-lined walls of JACK, these three talented musicians played seven originals. In union, their individual sparks fed a greater fire: Hobbs’ saxophone comprised the robust, bright red flames, Ho Bynum’s electrifying, often-muted cornet jumped like the fleeting tips of fire, and Halvorson’s deep and richly textured lines burned like coals. Amazingly, none of the musicians overwhelmed the others even as they inhabited shifting roles. The trio format without a rhythm section is unconventional and challenging, but it works in this case because the musicians take turns offering rhythmic support to each other. Halvorson’s guitar lines seem to fill this space most significantly, but certainly there are moments where Hobbs or Ho Bynum take on a rhythmic pulse that propels a fluid group dynamic.

The variety of moods in the songs was impressive. Even from moment to moment within songs, they shifted from sharp attacks to mournful descents to whimsical ponderings. The amount of space each artist afforded the others helped open the music open up and draw out individual voices. The compositions provided ample solo opportunities for all three players and often featured shifting duos that explored interrelationships, harmony, and rhythm. When playing together as a group, Aych has a complex, biting sound that stings and soothes simultaneously.

Hobbs has found his own voice on alto, one that can take a number of forms. His playing is often fierce, but can take a tender turn at a moment’s notice. He is a remarkably unpredictable player–his lines often hint at an intended path, but reach a very different conclusion. The force he produces often builds the illusion of two or three altos being played together, both in terms of robustness as well as in the variety of sounds he can produce all at the same time.

Anyone who believes avant jazz somehow involves musicians resorting to random notes and sounds, need only listen to Ho Bynum to see how challenging and highly inventive playing can also be fully intentional and precise. Having established a unique approach to his instrument, he also displays rare control–in fact, he has extended the vocabulary of his instrument in so many ways. In live performances, he can draw from this vast array of tools and even reproduce very avant-sounding lines when he chooses to do so. The result is fascinating: a deeply emotional player, he never loses his head while unveiling his repertoire.

Halvorson’s playing with Aych resembles some of her work with Secret Keeper more than her other projects. Halvorson explores deeply rich textures and harmonies–sophisticated yet remarkably dark and earthy sounds. She grounds Aych, while also unsettling that base in her own subversive style–bending pitches, shifting moods, making forays towards the others from below.

Aych released its first album on Relative Pitch in 2012. Anyone interested in acquiring a copy may purchase it directly from the artists here.

This concert was Aych’s third in three years and its first in New York. We can only hope that more will soon follow. Ho Bynum next plays in New York with the Tri-Centric Orchestra at Roulette on Sep 24 at 8 pm. Halvorson’s next New York appearance is with Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus at Shapeshifter Lab on Sep 26 at 8:15 pm.

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