The Thirteenth Assembly is an intricate pile-up of four of New York’s most formidable improvisers: Cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, guitarist Mary Halvorson, violist Jessica Pavone and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Their second album, Station Direct (out November 29 via Important Records), is measured and sprightly, some portions meticulously composed like drunken Brubeck, other parts spiraling off into skronktacular slapfights of free-improv dissonance. Drums poof and pop like pillowfights; Halvorson’s metal-tinged shredding juts through in sharp jabs. Album highlight “Prosthetic Chorizo” makes funky mincemeat of some 10/4 bars like Weather Report geeked on No Wave, and it eventually devolves into a cyclone of seasick violins and noir fretwork.
So, what is a “Prosthetic Chorizo”?
Tomas Fujiwara: I have no idea! I wrote the song and didn’t have a title for it. I was hanging out with [saxophonist] Tim Berne the night I finished it and he said “prosthetic chorizo” in the context of just joking around, and it stuck in my head. It had nothing to do with anything prosthetic or anything chorizo-ish, just a play on words that sounds funny a few beers in.
What inspired it musically?
Fujiwara: Compositionally, there are four sections to the piece. The first has Mary serving the bass/groove function while Taylor has the melody and Jessica has a few verbal instructions that she can be a free agent with. That section leads to a group improvisation that transitions to section two… Mary, Taylor, and Jessica all have written lines for section two. Inspiration for this song came from thinking about Mary, Taylor, and Jessica’s playing and writing something specifically for them.
This song has a unique groove.
Fujiwara: I’m trying to remember how I came up with the first section… I think I was actually trying to write a top voice melody and it kind of morphed into a bass line groove that I could hear Mary playing. The short section with Jessica and Taylor playing horn-style riffs came from thinking about Jessica’s love of ’60s soul music. I immediately saw and heard her playing that line as I was writing it!
Do you remember anything about the session for this song in particular?
Taylor Ho Bynum: I do remember when in the studio mixing, this was one of the tunes we had a tougher time choosing what take, but—if I may toot the composer’s horn—I remember the totally ferocious drumming on the out melody of this take sealed it as the one.
You’re all known for your individual works: What “challenges” does this particular ensemble setting present for you?
Fujiwara: I enjoy the challenge of playing music by the other three members of the group and creating a unified and personal sound. We all write songs specifically for this group, and the music develops very naturally over time. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of incorporating each composer’s drumming aesthetic into my own approach and trying to do the song justice.
Mary Halvorson: Agreed. For me the biggest challenge is to create a unified sound despite the fact that we have four fairly different compositional voices. I feel like we came a step closer on Station Direct. On the first record, it felt more like we were getting to know the band, and now we are writing for that band.
How do you four like to bond outside of a musical setting?
Fujiwara: iPod shuffle, Balderdash, Yahtzee, books on tape, sharing food, not sharing food, healthy tour eating, This American Life, driving in blizzards, outlet shopping, exercise, making customized playing card sets with old band headshots, astrology, basketball, good and bad jokes.
Halvorson: And good, old-fashioned shit-giving.
What was the most memorable show you’ve played in New York City?
Ho Bynum: I remember a hit at the Winter Jazz Fest, where there was a loud band—or techno, or something—happening next door, where you could feel this relentless beat on stage at all times, at a tempo that always seemed a tiny bit faster or a tiny bit slower than what we wanted to play. Being able to play together in that context is a true exercise in ensemble trust.
What’s your favorite place to eat in New York City?
Fujiwara: Ippudo. Best ramen in New York.
Halvorson: And don’t forget to order the cucumber appetizer. Sounds weird but I’m serious. A cucumber and the Ginga Kogen beer—I would go just for that.
Ho Bynum: As the token out-of-towner in the band, I have to give a shout-out for New Haven Pizza—Pepe’s is currently at the top of my rotation. But whenever in NYC, I gotta hit the Vietnamese sandwich joints, especially a spot on Broome and Mott… Banh Mi So 1.