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David Binney: Airplanes, Cities, Moods and Vibes

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Anything that really makes an impact on the world, it seems to me, involves strong melody. It doesn't matter what kind of music. Melody is the supreme thing to me.
David BinneyNew York altoist David Binney is a tremendous improviser, a prolific composer, a tireless bandleader and a reliable sideman. Although he was born in Florida and grew up in Southern California, he's been a gigging New York musician since he was 19 years old. He used the proceeds of a 1989 NEA grant to record his first CD, Point Game. Since its release on the Owl label, he's co-founded two groups, Lost Tribe and Lan Xang, played countless sessions and gigs as a sideman, and recorded a long string of recordings under his own name. While the personnel on Binney's records are often drawn from a core who's-who group of New York City pros such as bassist Scott Colley, saxophonists Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Brian Blade, the records themselves span a wide range of lineups and approaches, from the large-ensemble heft of the 2002 ACT CD Balance to last year's Criss Cross small-group blowing session, Bastion of Sanity. It's striking just how consistently good these records are, both in terms of performance and composition.

Binney's a great, productive composer. At the same time, he can free-improvise with the best of them, and his improvisations tend to benefit from the same formalism and flow that imbues his written pieces. And, of course, from the same love of melody; even on his most bracing of performances, there's a sense of tunefulness and song that seems to owe as much to, say, Paul McCartney as to Thelonious Monk. I won't claim Binney's the greatest living New York jazz composer or soloist, although he is as good at either as anyone around today. I will unhesitatingly, however, call him jazz's greatest contemporary melodist.

Binney's been recording a good deal lately. When I called him to discuss his splendid new album Out of Airplanes, a recording on his own Mythology Records, he was happy to. But he was also eager to talk about his new new record, Cities and Desire, a set on the Criss Cross label due out September 19th. Not to mention his newest new record, which should be out on Criss Cross in January. Despite a schedule active enough to produce this kind of output, and a very late night out on the town with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, Binney found time to speak with me when I rudely woke him up in his Québec City hotel room.

All About Jazz: You've got a new CD out, Out of Airplanes, on your own Mythology Records. Or I think the actual CD is out now, but for the first month or two, the album was available only as a download from your website—an approach which you obviously must have thought about. What encouraged you to release the music first in this online format?

David Binney: Well, the CD is at the factory right now, but by the time this interview is out, the actual CD will be available. I wanted to do the download thing because I find myself just buying downloads. I don't really buy CDs anymore, unless there's something I can't find as a download. For me, logistically, it's a lot easier as well to sell the download. It's cheaper for me to sell and taking the CDs on the road was always a huge, huge hassle—whether it was getting them across the border or just the weight of them. This way it's much easier. So there are those personal reasons.

But there's also the fact that that's what it's all going to anyway. CDs are dying! I was just talking to the jazz buyer at the downtown Tower Records in New York, and I said, "I'll have the actual physical CD in about a month, so I'll bring it by. He said, "Well, okay, if we're here. They've been trying to sell us. We're just dying—every store. It's going to go under soon. So I think all these stores are going under, and I think the reason is that people just don't get their music that way anymore for the most part. So I just wanted to sell this record that way first, as a download, and get people used to switching over, because it's really the way it's going to be done anyway. And the way I'd rather have it be done, personally. And some people say, "Oh, the sound quality's not as good, but to be honest with you, I don't really notice that much difference in sound quality. Maybe a slight difference, but it's not enough to matter—I'm just interested in the music. If there's any sound difference, it doesn't bother me.

AAJ: Like a lot of people, I've made the adjustment.

DB: Yeah. So for all of those reasons, I wanted to encourage it and to also get people focused on going to my site and downloading some of the live gigs—if they go to buy a record, they also see that there are live gigs there. I'm just trying to start this commerce at my site. It's another way for me to make money.

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