I approached this album with some trepidation, still carrying a perception of David Binney as a free blower from his work in the '90s. I pulled out a copy of The Luxury of Guessing (Audioquest, 1995) and gave it a listen. It wasn't bad, and it also included another hot sax man, Donny McCaslin. Perhaps my impression was due to Binney's debut recording on Owl from 1989, Point Game, but it was nowhere to be found. Regardless, I've likely been in an avoidance mode over the past decade.
David Binney's star seems to be ascending and this, I suspect, will be an important album for him. Cities and Desire is a conceptual work in which the original compositions all reflect the parts of the world (both personal and for performance) that he frequents. The musicians comprise Binney's working group, with the exception of tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, who had joined the group on Tuesday nights at New York's popular 55 Bar prior to the recording session.
Binney's playing is far better than I recall, and during the first half of this album, he sounds focused and concise. The album begins with a two-horn unison melody line for "Lisbon" and then travels north to "London," where Turner's solo on tenor sax is far more aggresive than Binney's.
Four different "Intro" segments lead, suite-like, into each respective nominal track. They are intended to provide a mood-setting musical theme. For "Toronto," which it turns out has a large Indian population, drummer Dan Weiss, who is a student of tabla master Samir Chatterjee, provides an exciting four-minute intro. When the group joins him, Weiss remains on tabla at first, before returning to the drum kit. For "Carpinteria," Binney's California home town, there is almost a serenity, beginning with Craig Taborn's reflective intro, which recalls the saxophonist's frequent visits to visit his dying mother there.
"Miami," contrary to stereotype, has nothing of the salsa or Latin flavor that one might expect. It is the album's most conventional mainstream ballad, and the inspiration derives from Binney's journeys to visit his ailing father there. For his visits to "Rome," a deceptively quiet Morgan bass intro evolves into frenetic and somewhat outside playing. When Turner and Binney intertwine after ferocious solos, they make an avant-garde statement. When Taborn gets in his piano solo, he channels the spirit of Cecil Taylor, with the same idiosyncratic, choppy and fragmented style.
In sum, the lesson learned from this experience is to frequently update your existing musical perceptions in order to confirm or revise them.
Personnel: David Binney: alto sax; Mark Turner: tenor sax; Craig Taborn: piano; Thomas Morgan: bass; Dan Weiss: drums.