Review: The Thirteenth Assembly

Taylor Ho Bynum and Jessica Pavone
The Thirteenth Assembly at the Vortex
Drawing by Geoff Winston. All Rights Reserved

The Thirteenth Assembly
(Vortex, Sunday 30 October 2011: review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

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The Thirteenth Assembly’s two first-time sets at the Vortex were brimming with craft, invention and musical surprises. Primarily based in New York, they are one of the most stimulating and accomplished ensembles on the scene today. Their collective ethos is refreshingly ego-free and mutually supportive.

They have each collaborated extensively with like-minded musicians and have come within the orbit of Anthony Braxton’s ambitious projects. Their latest album, Station Direct (Important Records) was recorded at the superb studios at Firehouse 12 Records, co-founded in New Haven by Taylor Ho Bynum in 2006, a fertile meeting ground which has produced landmark recordings by Bill Dixon and Braxton and those of a clutch of small groups, including those of Myra Melford, Peter Evans, Mary Halvorson and Ho Bynum’s on which The Thirteenth Assembly’s members variously play. (When I was in Connecticut earlier this year, the bar and shop were open in the eponymous, beautifully converted firehouse, right next to the Yale campus, but it was not a live music night.)

The unfamiliar presence of cornet and viola, in tandem with guitar and drums, caught the eye as they launched into numbers from the new album. It soon became apparent that their collective spirit extends beyond their playing, and encompasses the individual authorships of each piece, which Tomas Fujiwara, the on-stage spokesperson, was careful to credit. Part of their success is that this grouping is a collective of composers, which, as Ho Bynum explained to me, is a different proposition to a collective of improvisers – although he pointed out that their performances do, of course, allow a degree of improvisation beyond the scores which they all follow assiduously.

There are so many shades to their explorations, in which the disarmingly obvious dissolves into the blatantly unpredictable. Jessica Pavone bridged the classical, folk and popular in an off-beat way. Her strained, long drawn notes moved to lightly choppy hip-hop beats and flowed into a spell of grinding distortion from Halvorson, who is equally at home with an abstract, lightly picked fretboard run. Ho Bynum takes all kinds of everyday objects – a CD, a floppy felt hat, for example – and explores their potential to serve as cornet mutes. Each has its own timbre possibilities for his flickering ideas.

Fujiwara’s shimmering passage on cymbals built up into a fully fledged solo before dropping off to allow a peaceful cornet episode, and then headed back to light soul-funk rhythm on ‘Coming Up’. The steady pace of ‘Direct’ with an arrangement bringing the cornet and viola to the fore, had an affinity with Sufjan Stevens’s ‘Michigan’. ‘Long Road’ saw Pavone take a moving excursion into liminal, electronic distortions which Fujiwara picked up on, vibrating a drum with a wreath of shells hanging from it, evoking the atmosphere of the sea.

‘Quick Draw McGraw’ met ragtime before they took a whirl around an Appalachian folk theme, disintegrating in to a brief psychedelic jam with Halvorson in full grunge chordal mode. The final number, ‘Too Sweet’, based on a cornet call, stuttered at the start and gave rise to Ho Bynum’s humorous call of ‘Welcome to open rehearsal!’ – extending the camaraderie to the audience.

In this rich, democratic web of textures a captivating tension was maintained throughout the evening. Without doubt, one of the high points of this Vortex season.

Jessica Pavone: viola
Mary Halvorson: guitar
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet
Tomas Fujiwara: drums


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