Positive Catastrophe: Playing with Genre

Connects Salsa and the Avant-Garde, Music and Literature, Brains and Brawn

The music of Taylor Ho Bynum, 37, the prolific cornetist who leads or co-leads groups of various sizes and helps run the Firehouse 12 label, can’t be categorized without a lot of hyphenated descriptions. When discussing his work, Bynum likes a term used by his former teacher and ongoing associate Anthony Braxton: “‘Transidiomatic’-[the idea] that you acknowledge, respect and draw from idiom, but you don’t let yourself be defined by, or limited by, the idiom,” he explains. “It’s an embrace of it and a freedom from it at the same time.”

Percussionist Abraham Gomez-Delgado, 40, has an even wider take on how his own music might be classified. He started to take music seriously after his first love, painting, became less artistically fulfilling. “I know I’m a musician, but I’ve always considered it an art project,” says Gomez-Delgado, who once led a band that has been described as Latin no-wave salsa-rock.

These highly inclusive philosophies define Positive Catastrophe, a 10-piece band combining the rhythms of Latin music with driving charts that evoke Sun Ra or Charles Mingus and think nothing of flying into free territory. The band’s second album, Dibrujo, Dibrujo, Dibrujo, … (Cuneiform), includes a four-movement title piece named for a blend of two Spanish words meaning “drawing” and “sorcerer”; another suite features lyrics taken from classic literature that, in one instance, get translated into Spanish and played over a Latin groove. There’s far more concept to this band than catastrophe.

Gomez-Delgado grew up with traditional Latin music and suddenly discovered free jazz during adolescence. “It was so different from Latin music, but then I started seeing a lot of similarities politically and in terms of race,” he says. “So I wanted to combine rhythmic African Diaspora music with the textures of free jazz.” He met Bynum in Boston during the late ’90s, when both were in college. They began collaborating soon after, and when both later relocated to New York City and were attempting to form their own large ensembles, they decided it made sense to combine bands. “We realized we were sharing about half the musicians, so we thought, let’s just make this easy,” Bynum says.

Gomez-Delgado originally wanted to call his band Garabatos, which translates to “doodles.” “The idea was to make a lot of quick, very simple compositions of mostly plena rhythms,” he says, referring to the folkloric music of his native Puerto Rico. “Just instrumental music. It would all be like doodles.” (Positive Catastrophe titled its 2009 debut Garabatos Volume One.)

Bynum, whose work can blur composition and improvisation, says Positive Catastrophe represents the first time he’s let himself play with genre. “It’s always difficult to define the music. We get lumped into the jazz thing, and with Abraham, the salsa thing,” he says. “Ultimately, I think with all of our interests, [the band] tries to move past definition.”

On the new album, Bynum’s “Lessons Learned From Seafaring Tales” does this to a great extent. In three movements, he lifts texts from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and, skipping ahead to the current century, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, giving each a vocal melody. Sung by accordionist Kamala Sankaram, the melodies are by turns operatic or evocative of Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill. On the Conrad-based “Perhaps the Artist Was a Little Mad,” sung in Spanish, the melody finds a groove. An avid reader, Bynum was inspired after noticing analogies between sea journeys and creative music. “A band really exists very much like a ship: You have one or two captains, you have a crew. You go on journeys where you don’t really know where you’re going to end up,” he says.

The four movements of the title suite, “Dibrujo, Dibrujo, Dibrujo …” (which demonstrates further irreverence by misspelling the titular word in each movement), offer a good example of tradition and modernity working together. Beginning with poignant accordion that quickly gets rowdy, it goes on to include layers of horns blowing around each other, finally climaxing in a plena marked by the composer’s wild whooping over Michaël Attias’ baritone.

You might be tempted to say that Bynum brings the compositional intellect to the group while Gomez-Delgado brings the feel, but the visceral overtakes the cerebral on Bynum’s “Garrison Ascending,” the disc’s 12-minute swinger inspired by a Jimmy Garrison bass solo. Things can’t be delineated so clearly in Positive Catastrophe, and that’s a good thing. “We’re very much musical brothers, but at the same time we come from very different perspectives, and have different strengths and weaknesses,” Bynum says. “So I think it’s worth it.”