Taylor Ho Bynum: Enter the PlusTet
Firehouse 12 Records

Imagine some modern-day merger of Henry Threadgill's Very Very Circus (the Too Much Sugar For a Dime period) and Charles Mingus's band (circa The Black Saint & Sinner Lady) and you might have something close in sound and spirit to Taylor Ho Bynum's PlusTet, its very name reminiscent of Threadgill's early outfit, the Sextett. Of course the leader in this case is on cornet as opposed to sax or bass, but the similarities are there nonetheless. Ho Bynum, one of the co-founders of the New Haven, Connecticut-based Firehouse 12 Records label, is a gregarious community cultivator who's blazed a thoroughly idiosyncratic trail, evidenced not only by the daring group projects he's midwifed but also for Acoustic Bicycle Tours that see him getting from concert to concert on two wheels.

On Enter the PlusTet, the cornetist conducts a fifteen-member “dream band” featuring distinguished associates with whom he's worked for many years, including two of his earliest teachers, Bill Lowe (bass trombone, tuba) and Jay Hoggard (vibes). Kindred spirits Mary Halvorson (guitar), Jim Hobbs (alto sax), Ingrid Laubrock (tenor, soprano saxes), Matt Bauder (tenor, baritone saxes), Tomeka Reid (cello), Jason Kao Hwang (violin, viola), Ken Filiano (bass), and Tomas Fujiwara (drums) take part, as do trumpeters Nate Wooley and Stephanie Richards, trombonist Steve Swell, and French horn player Vincent Chancey. A simple scan of the personnel involved is enough to get one excited, especially when each contributor is granted at least one moment in the spotlight.

Given such a collective, it hardly surprises that warm, polyphonic horn textures abound, and at times the music blares forth with a celebratory, New Orleans-styled exuberance. Certain passages are particularly Mingus-like, such as the lustful, blues-drenched episode that emerges during the second cut, “Three (for Me We and Them),” the horns in this case vividly calling to mind Mingus's own horn section.

At twenty-one minutes, the opening “Sleeping Giant” casts a long shadow, even if the other pieces are clearly not slouches in the ambition department. Incorporating conducting principles of Anthony Braxton's into the band's blustery performance, the leader guides the ensemble through modular pieces of composition whilst also encouraging individual players to step forth with extended statements of their own. Smaller groupings form out of which solo voices emerge, the landscape rising, falling, and changing dramatically, raucous one moment and bluesy or sweetly melodious the next. “Three (for Me We and Them),” its title dedicated in part to James ‘Jabbo' Ware and the Me We and Them Orchestra (the first composer-led big band Bynum caught live), begins with Halvorson strutting her stuff in customary arresting manner before the collective sweeps in on a modal tide and a bluesy segment takes over. “That Which Only ... Never Before” concludes the set with ten minutes of controlled abandon, as oxymoronic as that might sound, the ensemble coming together through multiple twists and turns yet also splintering into component parts for the spotlights.

While Enter the PlusTet isn't overtly political, there is an undeniably political dimension to the recording and the project in general. In these somewhat divisive times, Ho Bynum and company show that diversity and collective purpose can co-exist, that in healthy, multi-phonic communities accommodation can be made for different voices to speak freely without the whole of which they're a part collapsing or imploding.

October 2016