Thursday, May 28, 2009

Live Jazz in Park Slope - Taylor Ho Bynum / Sonny Fortune

This is a long-delayed review of a couple of shows I caught in Park Slope, Brooklyn earlier this year, Taylor Ho Bynum at the Tea Lounge and Sonny Fortune at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. I'm pairing the two shows because of their location, but it does set up some interesting points of comparison/contrast: Bynum young but with a long resume, Fortune a veteran; both flying under the mainstream radar and perhaps best known for their work with jazz legends (Bynum with Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton, Fortune in Miles Davis' last pre-hiatus groups of the '70s).

Bynum brought a trio with bassist John Hebert and drummer Gerald Cleaver to Park Slope's favorite venue for old couches and adventurous live music, the Tea Lounge. The three had previously played together in Europe with the Portugese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado. Their work as a trio at the Tea Lounge was relaxed and improvisational, starting out with some long stretches of seemingly free playing and ending up with a few tunes, including Monk's "Nutty" and perhaps one by Braxton (my memory fails). Bynum had a considerable arsenal of horns at his disposal. He's primarily known as a trumpeter or cornetist, but on this night he worked his way through what seemed like the entire extended trumpet/trombone family.

Besides deploying an array of instruments, Bynum also showed a wide range of horn technique, from traditional to extended, even using a felt hat for a soft wah-mute effect. From aggressive, piercing, and noisy (a young woman sitting near me bailed out early in the set, which must be a common occurence in a coffee shop that books avant-garde jazz) to wry and bluesy, THB showed himself to be thoroughly fluent in the "out" end of the jazz horn idiom.

Hebert and Cleaver provided some rhythmic grounding to Bynum's explorations while also demonstrating considerable instrumental facility and imagination. Hebert achieved a variety of effects on bass with volume pedal and occasional bow. (I later saw Hebert do some great work in a very different trio with Fred Hersch.) To describe music as "invigorating" makes it sound too much like a stroll on a windswept seacliff, but it may suffice to say that this set left me with a feeling of hope and curiosity about the future of improvisational music.

Sonny Fortune, on alto, soprano, and flute, led a quartet through two sets of extended, solo-rich performances at the small recital space of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. The piano, drums, and bass were all solid, but Fortune was the clear star, with tremendous command and clear, rich tone on all three of his instruments.

The most memorable tunes were two associated with, but not composed by, John Coltrane: "In a Sentimental Mood", with Fortune's playing enough to completely erase, at least while the song lasted, the stigma associated with jazz flute, and Fortune's own tribute composition "Trane and Things". In sound, format, and approach to material, Fortune's quartet operates very much in the mode of the classic Coltrane quartet, and on "Trane and Things" they managed to capture some of the surging, cool fire of Live at Birdland and other early-to-mid sixties Coltrane. The fact that the group can successfully navigate this dangerous territory, inviting unflattering comparisons to one of the all-time great groups, is mostly a tribute to the power and dexterity of the 70 year-old Fortune's playing.

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