Three emerging jazz leaders offer inspiration

Jazz artists have always needed to be resourceful, perhaps today more than ever. For three representative New York-area musicians, the struggles and uncertainties of creative life in the trenches are well worth it. Cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and alto saxophonists Matana Roberts and Steve Lehman have built viable careers as performers and recording artists, in part by developing a breadth of skills and seizing the multitude of opportunities that come their way. Now in their early- to mid-thirties, these three epitomize the stubborn idealism and cold-eyed realism required to stand out in an immensely challenging field.

Steve Lehman

Steve Lehman

For Lehman, the leader of an acclaimed jazz octet and composer of intricate works that straddle the jazz and contemporary “classical” divide, academia was the solution. “I’ve always tried to strategize how I could set things up in my day-to-day routine to have the maximum amount of time to devote to music,” says the Brooklyn-based altoist, who mentions that he worked an office job some years ago. “It became clear pretty early that grad school would be the best setup.”

Following graduate studies at Wesleyan and a yearlong Fulbright scholarship in Paris, Lehman enrolled in Columbia University to pursue a Doctor of Musical Arts degree, which he’ll receive by 2012. He’s investigating “spectralism,” a compositional approach that deals with the science of sound itself; Lehman’s variant involves hyper-complex rhythms inspired in part by hip-hop and electronica. “I’ve been passionate about studying with [improvising trombonist and computer music pioneer] George Lewis, as well as [composer] Tristan Murail, the father figure of this whole area of ‘spectral’ music,” Lehman says.

Academia’s benefits for Lehman involve more than just contact with brilliant teachers. “There’s a stipend, space to rehearse and access to the school’s infrastructure,” he explaisn, “which is great for the work I’ve done with computer music and electronics. But Columbia’s program is extremely competitive and you have to be clear that it’s the right fit for you.” He’s found another good fit for this summer, returning to Paris for a residency at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), which is “another example of my pattern of finding institutions to hook up with where there’s overlap in terms of musical interests, and possibilities for financial support.”

Taylor Ho Bynum

Taylor Ho Bynum

Matana Roberts has opted to “gypsy it out a bit,” as she puts it, shuttling between Montreal, London and her home in Harlem. In this way, she’s developed new networks and alliances while pursuing an ambitious long-term goal: completion of an epic musical narrative, known as Coin Coin. The 12-chapter work-in-progress explores African-American history and genealogy in a searingly personal fashion, melding music and performance art and drawing on the aesthetics of Roberts’ mentors in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM, of which Lehman’s professor Lewis is a member).

“I was trying to find a way to umbrella things I’m interested in that I can’t always do with other projects,” Roberts explains. This year will see the release of her recordings Coin Coin Chapter One: Les Gens de Couleur Libres, and the comparatively straightforward quartet set Live In London, both of which are gripping documents.

With her fiercely unpredictable, biting and blues-inflected alto sound, Roberts embodies the adventurous ethic of her forebears in free, experimental, “creative” jazz. She’s also willing and able to cross genre boundaries, doing horn-section work with indie-rock groups such as TV on the Radio. Coin Coin has led her to such efforts as a research project through the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice initiative at McGill and the University of Guelph. “I also started a program in Montreal for inner-city Anglo youth,” she notes. “I focused on tenets of improvisation related to Coin Coin, helping these kids develop a sense of their own abilities. I see it as coming out of the punk-rock aesthetic, which means a lot to me: That if you have the desire to do something, you just do it. That’s the AACM philosophy, too. You do what you want to do, and you see what the outcome is afterwards.”

Roberts recently mounted a number of site-specific sound installations at the Studio Museum of Harlem, and she’s gearing up for performances—with full ensembles or wholly unaccompanied—at Salt Space, the Jazz Gallery and other venues in the near future. It’s a “rough and tumble” existence, she admits. “I don’t have a family to support, but I have other responsibilities. I have a sister who’s disabled, and it’s a struggle to pursue music in a way that lets me live a normal life. My life is very abnormal.”

Taylor Ho Bynum took the rough-and-tumble to heart and got out of town. Though very much a presence in New York, he and his wife now live in New Haven, Conn., where he’s a founding partner and producer for the Firehouse 12 record label. “New York is really pricing itself out of being an arts capital,” says Bynum, who favors cornet for its warm, personal characteristics over other trumpets. “As important as it is to have this great community and hear incredible music night after night, there’s something to be said for having the space and time to think and develop ideas. I’ve gotten that by moving away.”

Matana Roberts.

Matana Roberts. Photo by Brett Walker.

Though a prolific recording and performing artists, Bynum has various music-support roles, too. He’s president of the nonprofit Tri-Centric Foundation, devoted to the music of reedist/composer Anthony Braxton. He’s also vice president of the annual Festival of New Trumpet (FONT) series, laboring in league with founder and fellow trumpeter Dave Douglas. “I tease myself sometimes that I support my nonprofit arts organizing career through my career in music, which is terribly ass-backwards,” Bynum says. “I really believe you’ve got to find ways to make the scene work better, although fighting to change the music scene by day and fighting to make music at night is sometimes doubly exhausting.”

Bynum is a quick-witted and virtuosic player, steeped in the flutters, growls and extended techniques associated with the late Bill Dixon, the tunefulness of Don Cherry and bluesy humor of Lester Bowie, among other predecessors. Supported by a Chamber Music America grant, he’s currently preparing new recordings with his sextet and with the 10-piece group Positive Catastrophe. He appears in June at the Vision Festival with drummer Gerald Cleaver and also with Action Theory, a project incorporating music and dance. He’s corralled a who’s-who of talent for FONT’s “We Speak” festival, June 7 at Vision, June 3 at the Rubin Museum of Art and June 5 at (le) Poisson Rouge.

If tough economic times are almost a given for adventurous jazzers, these three at least find ample reward in the quality and excitement of the work they’re doing. “On the creative side I couldn’t be more optimistic,” Bynum says, and many in these circles would agree. “I want artists to have the chance to pursue projects that aren’t practical,” he continues. “We need to keep going for that, the impractical, the impossible. That’s why you do it.”