‘Enter the PlusTet’ and ‘Away With You’ Reviews: Making Space for Large Ensembles
For the past 10 years or so, many of the most interesting large ensembles in jazz have sounded small. Rather than flex the muscles of horn sections and celebrate rich, diverse harmonies created by a multitude of instruments, large ensembles focused on minute and unusual unisons with a compelling use of space. That has been changing recently. Earlier this year, two superb recordings—“The Distance” (ECM) by Michael Formanek’s aptly named Ensemble Kolossus and “Real Enemies” (New Amsterdam) by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society—have supplied some much needed force and power to the large ensemble sound with no loss of subtlety. Two new recordings on Firehouse 12 featuring the stellar guitarist Mary Halvorson, “Enter the PlusTet” by Taylor Ho Bynum and “Away With You” by her own octet, continue this trend in fascinating ways.
Mr. Bynum, who is 41, is a cornetist who has made his mark both with a series of impressive small groups and in his work with the Tri-Centric Foundation, an organization dedicated to realizing the large-scale works of
composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. “Sleeping Giant,” the first track on the 44-minute “Enter the Plus Tet,” offers the same ambitious sprawl as Braxton’s early work. Fanfares build slowly behind Mr. Bynum’s gritty solo, and the music moves gracefully with nods to the large ensemble music of Muhal Richard Abrams and the pointed funk of Prince. “Three (For Me We & Them)” is a dedication to James Jabbo Ware’s Me We & Them Orchestra, a band that deftly combined the profound elegance of the Duke Ellington band and the earthy swing of the Sun Ra Arkestra. The piece is highlighted by solos from drummer Tomas Fujiwara and vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, each capturing the sweeping spirit of the piece.
Ms. Halvorson, who is 36, plays in Mr. Bynum’s sextet, and she has been developing her own voice in bands that have grown steadily over the past six or seven years. Her octet began as a quintet and expanded to a septet before arriving in its present form. With each of the ensembles her writing has become stronger and more diverse. While her other bands offered conventional lineups, the octet features two guitarists, an unusual setting
in jazz. The music on “Away With You” is playful then knotty, bright then brooding without becoming pastiche. This is especially evident on the title track when contrapuntal guitar lines provide the foundation for catchy musical dialogue between the drums and guitars and boisterous harmonies from the horn section. Another track, “The Absolute Almost (No. 52),” is slower and reflective with a pensive guitar duet at the start that shifts into an exuberant passage with intertwining horn lines and ringing guitars.
The members of Ms. Halvorson’s septet—trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Jacob Garchik, bassist John Herbert, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Ches Smith—have all achieved deserved renown with their own groups. For this band, Ms. Halvorson added slide guitarist Susan Alcorn—and the impact is immense. Ms.
Alcorn is an innovator, and Ms. Halvorson’s writing for her steers well clear of the familiar keening sounds that almost reflexively bring to mind sunsets in the western sky. Instead, both guitarists engage in pithy interplay that contrasts starkly with the horns. This results in a more robust sound from Ms. Halvorson’s ensemble.
Both Ms Halvorson and Mr. Bynum studied at Wesleyan University with Mr. Braxton. Although he is known as a pioneer of jazz’s mid-’60s avant-garde movement, his music passionately embraced a broad array of styles from Sousa marches to 12-tone Serialism. On their new recordings, two of his prize students are showing exceptional facility with a diverse range of styles and smartly presenting them in large ensemble settings
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal and he blogs about music, sports and more rotations.wordpress.com.