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  • Glenn Siegel

Illegal Crowns Make Their U.S. Debut

Two years removed from our original concert date, music lovers in western Massachusetts finally got to see Illegal Crowns perform in person on June 19, 2022. The cooperative quartet: Taylor Ho Bynum, cornet, flugelhorn, Mary Halvorson, guitar, Benoit Delbecq, piano and Tomas Fujiwara, drums, captivated an audience of 50 at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence, MA on Father’s Day and Juneteenth.

Illegal Crowns pairs long-time collaborators Ho Bynum, Halvorson and Fujiwara, with the esteemed French pianist and composer, Benoit Delbecq. They received a French-American Cultural Exchange grant to cover expenses for their five-city tour.

The concert was twice delayed by the pandemic. COVID-19, along with exceedingly strict immigration restrictions placed upon artists during the last administration, meant that the $1,800 budgeted for Delbecq’s visa and legal services almost tripled. Despite the obstacles, the musicians and producers persevered, and we were the beneficiaries.

Sunday’s Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares event, an afternoon affair, was the last gig in tour that included stops in Washington, Pittsburgh, New York and Boston. These were their first live performances in the United States. After the show, the band headed to Firehouse 12 in New Haven to record their third album.

What sublime music we witnessed. Everyone in the band contributed compositions, and the consistent variety of sounds and moods meant that an hour flew by without me noticing I was sitting on a wooden pew. Swing, funk and ballads mingled naturally with abstract elements to produce, in Ho Bynum’s words, “a hybridized and willfully corrupted musical vocabulary.”

We hardly noticed the absence of a bass instrument, as Halvorson and Delbecq provided the rhythmic bottom, while simultaneously creating swirling beds of sparks and momentum. Despite liberties taken with harmony and meter, lyricism and form ruled the day.

Writing about the band in Point of Departure, Ed Hazell summed it up: “Their every gesture is defined, specific, and placed within the flow of music so it harmonizes with what surrounds it. Sure there’s tension and release and dissonance and noise, but there’s never a clash or an element out of place.”

Halvorson has been through these parts multiple times since she first performed at UMass with Jessica Pavone 10 years ago, but I have never heard her sound more tuneful. Of course, she employed her usual arsenal of note-bending pedals and piquant ideas, but these elements were folded beautifully into an organic ensemble sound.

Delbecq also exerted a consonance over the proceedings that made the avant-garde accessible. On occasion, he inserted twigs between the piano strings, producing a kalimba-like buzz. After the concert, he showed me his bag of bark-less sticks, some of which had thumb tacks attached. He knew the wood type for each of his devices, as well as the location of each tree. The technique gave things a world-music vibe that added depth and dimension to the music. Incidentally,Delbecq’s solo record, The Weight of Light (2021, Pyroclastic), is a gem.

The tour and the forthcoming record were supported by the French-American Cultural Exchange Foundation, a program of the French embassy in the U.S.. Their mandate: to foster meaningful interaction between French and American musicians, results in some fascinating collaborations. I still remember vocalist Emilie LesBros’ performance with Darius Jones at the 2015 Vision Festival, supported by FACE.

It’s always interesting when a new person enters an established group. Ho Bynum, Halvorson and Fujiwara have known each other for half their lives, and appear frequently in each other’s bands. Ho Bynum told me afterwards he loves the influence Delbecq exerts on the ensemble. Perhaps that’s why the cornetist sounded especially sweet at Bombyx. His smeared sounds and tattered phrases sounded very good alongside his chugging bandmates. Ho Bynum is becoming a master of mutes, using a bowler hat and funnel, among other devices, to provide texture and humor.

Fujiwara was his usual dynamic self, playing precise rhythms on every part of his drum kit and at all volumes. He articulately framed each piece, making it easier for us to follow the composer’s intent. The breadth of the compositions gave us a chance to hear his incredible range as a drummer.

It’s been great to have Ho Bynum, Halvorson and Fujiwara, who all grew up in the Boston area, make regular visits to western Massachusetts. Thanks to them for introducing us to Benoit Delbecq, and expanding our known circle of talented pianists and composers.

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