Taylor Ho Bynum Ensemble: The Prince Project World Premiere
Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m., $10-$15, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org
Franz Liszt did it. So did Gustav Mahler, the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Anthony Braxton, Liz Phair, Dirty Projectors, on and on.
Come to think of it, every important artist steps outside of his or her own head space, at some point, to reimagine another person's work within the context of their own time period and style. Re-interpretation — through cover songs (the Stones, Lennon, and other pop musicians) or along a sliding scale of re-contextualization (Liszt, Mahler, Braxton, and so on) — is a necessary step for developing artists; at the very least, it can act as a serviceable palate-cleanser along the way. Arguably, most musicians emerge from the experience with a greater understanding of their own creative minds.
New Haven-based cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum's Prince Project, premiering this weekend at Real Art Ways in Hartford, is much more than a tribute act. Prince is to Bynum — perhaps best known as an experimental jazz musician and an acolyte of Anthony Braxton — what Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker were to Braxton, Bynum's mentor: an artist who lit a fire, back when he was still coming to grips with what music was all about.
"That's the process part of it that becomes very interesting," Bynum said. "There is a very creative aspect to investigating a repertoire that can certainly illuminate something about yourself when you're going through the process."
Bynum and his European booking agent, on a drive between gigs in Italian cities, heard Prince on the radio. Bynum suggested that, someday, he'd like to perform Prince's music. His agent agreed; six months later, Bynum learned he'd be presenting a Prince project to a Milanese audience in February, as part of a series featuring experimental jazz artists playing the music of R&B/funk legends: Steven Bernstein doing Sly Stone, Dee Alexander doing James Brown, and so on.
Bynum had mixed feelings about doing a repertory project. "I love Prince, and I'm very excited to do this," he said. "but sometimes I'm uncomfortable when jazz or creative music, some people only get over when they do a pop cover. There's an assumption that you need to do that to cross over, sometimes at the cost of one's own music."
At the same time, Bynum acknowledged the Purple One's improvisational prowess. "One of the things for me," Bynum said, "going to hear some of these tunes and some of the tunes we know so well, hearing him do them live on a couple of versions: he's actually very open to reinventing his own music in an improvisatory context, or at least as an arranger, to try new spaces."
Bynum focused on Prince's recordings between 1982-88, one of the most historically important periods of his output. He avoided becoming distracted by the celebrity aspects: crazy costumes, name changes, sexy girlfriends, whatever. "One of the reasons I like doing this is to strip all of that away and say, 'This guy's a brilliant composer,'" he said. "Some of the song structures, the harmonic sophistication of the melodies, some of the grooves he's putting together are really extraordinary."
Prince's music has improvisatory sections — traditional guitar solos, say — one could imagine a jazz group using and expanding. Bynum, however, was never that fond of the head-solo-head school of jazz arrangement. "That's not what I want to do, partly because that's not what I'm interested in doing in jazz," Bynum said. "In my own music, I've moved really far away from the structured head-solo-head, because I think it does become a very predictable structure."
Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra — artists he'd covered in the past — would have been more obvious choices for a project of this sort. "If I did a tribute to Don Cherry... it would be an easy jump," Bynum said. "What I liked about Prince was the challenge of it."
What Bynum finds most pleasing about Prince's music is the sense of surprise, that it rarely follows traditional song forms. As with Ellington, melodies transform, change and grow. "There's this constant evolution of one little idea that manifests into something else," he said. "That's what makes it so exciting... Miles [Davis] always said that Prince reminded him of Ellington. That kind of evolving-narrative compositional structure is something that does link them."
In the '80s, Bynum said, Prince's tunes weren't identifiable as existing in any one genre, something Bynum's mentor, Braxton, calls "trans-idiomatic." "We use [that term] in our crazy, experimental music, but it's really true of [Prince's] music as well. It's influenced by all these different genres and idioms, but it really obeys the rules of none of them. It runs its own creative course." Prince pulls from and weaves in disparate genres, in other words, but doesn't keep them around very long, dissolving them before the whole can be identified as any one type of music. "That's what I'm trying to do with my [own] music at all times."
Bynum's ensemble — alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs, pianist/vocalist Kyoko Kitamura, keyboardist Nick Lloyd, guitarist Evan Patrick, percussionist Abraham Gomez-Delgado, bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff — is world-class. But Bynum warned that audiences shouldn't show up expecting to hear covers of their favorite Prince songs.
"They'll be really terribly disappointed," Bynum said, "probably horribly so. But if someone is interested in Prince as a composer, this might offer up some different aspects of his music that they haven't thought of before."