In a career that seems to go from strength to strength and milestone to milestone, it's hard to imagine how David Binney manages to not only release one terrific record after another, but to do so, in some cases, under some pretty constricting terms. Like the five other albums that the influential saxophonist/composer has recorded as a leader or co-leader for the Dutch Criss Cross labelmost recently 2010's Aliso
and the following year's Barefooted Town
producer and label owner Gerry Teekens gave Binney just one day to record Lifted Land
at their usual digs, Michael Marciano's fine Systems Two Recording Studios in Brooklyn, NY. The result is an album that would likely take many far longer to get this wellbut for Binney and his quartet, it seems to be nothing more than business as usual.
Normally, Binney saves his more ambitious recordings for his own Mythology label, albums like 2011's career-defining Graylen Epicenter
, with a cast of 12; true, Binney works with a far more manageable quartet for Lifted Land
, but musically this is no simple head-solo-head blowing session. From the brief, through-composed opener, "Fanfare for Basu," its initial, near-impossibly knotty lines morphing into a section of Steve Reich
ian looped/overdubbed saxophones that, with the rest of the band slowly reentering, resolves back to its near-unfathomable openingand all this in a mere two minutes and twenty-five seconds.
Binney's quartet is a mix of old and new: Craig Taborn
whose upward trajectory seems to have no end in sight, as the keyboardist, in addition to work with everyone from saxophonist Tim Berne
to bassist Dave Holland
, has just released a trio recording, Chants
(ECM, 2013), as significant as his solo debut for the German label, Avenging Angels
(2011)first connected with Binney for the saxophonist's Welcome to Life
(Mythology, 2004), but has been a fairly regular colleague ever since, also appearaing on Graylen
and Third Occasion
(Mythology, 2009), another particular highlight in Binney's growing discography; bassist Eivind Opsvik
first appeared on Binney's Out of Airplanes
(Mythology, 2006)an experimental recording that truly used the studio as a compositional tooland has been the saxophonist's recent bassist of choice, appearing on every recording since Aliso
Only Tyshawn Sorey
is new to Binney, replacing the saxophonist's usual choices of Dan Weiss
and, on occasion, Brian Blade
, but this is a thirty-something drummer who is also a deep compositional thinker, as his discography as a leader has only recently begun, starting with the critically acclaimed That/Not
(Firehouse 12, 2007). Clearly, based on his work here, Sorey is a player capable of working in everything from the rigidly composed to the flat-out free.
Which is a good thing; Lifted Land
may have its fair share of Binney's challenging compositional work, but there's also some unexpected, completely free improvisation to be found. "The Blue Whale," the album's second-longest track, opens with an oblique bass solo that ultimately resolves into a supporting double-stop ostinato which, supported by Sorey's light but busy cymbal work, leads to a relatively simple melody (in Binney terms, that is), opening up to an alto solo that gradually unfolds, beginning with long-held whole notes but slowly gaining in speed and intensitypushed, pulled and prodded by Opsvik, Sorey and, especially, Taborn, who underscores the saxophonist's work with contrapuntal combinations of abstract lines and dense voicings. The whole quartet ultimately turns incendiary as Binney then leaves Taborn to turn the heat up even further, creating a kaleidoscopic panorama of angular lines and block chords, as he ever-so-slowly moves towards an anthemic theme doubled by Binney and another ostinato that, this time, provides the space for Sorey to deliver a solo of tumultuous power and maelstrom-like energy.
But the centerpiece of Lifted Land
is the tune that precedes "The Blue Whale." A significant reduction of an extended composition that Binney performed as an entire show at New York's Rubin Museum of Art in the fall of 2011, "As Snow Before a Summer Sun" is still over eighteen minutes in length, and in many ways is a consolidation of everything Binney has been about to date. Opening in a dark place, with a short melodic intro leading to Opsvik's brief a cappella
, arco solo, space is a key partner here; after another brief melodic group passage, the only sound heard is a single gong that, for nearly a minute, is gradually processed and panned across the entire soundstage, leading to a similar thirty-second exploration of a single cymbal before fading nearly to black, but with Sorey working a combination of hand percussion, gongs, cymbals and a bass drum that, rubbed with a wetted finger, evokes a deep glissando. Revealing the entire section to be a percussion soloone more orchestral in nature and, with so much taking place at low volumes, the complete antithesis of a typical drum solo.
Another brief group passage leads to another a cappella
solo, this time from Binney, whose command, not just of harmony and melody, but of tone and texture, underscores a feature that, like his previous partners' solos, makes space and decay fundamental partners. With Taborn contributing a similarly brooding solo, it's not hard to see how the piece could be expanded to full-set length. Binney claims, in occasional All About Jazz
contributor David Adler
's informative liners, that ..."other than [a few sections that are difficult], the stuff is really not that hard." Begging to differ, just because the chart itself isn't particularly tough doesn't mean just anyone can bring it to life, whether here for 18 minutes, or in concert for triple or quadruple that length.
Elsewhere, the title track begins as a Binney ballad, which means that it may be gentle, but it's far from predictable. As Sorey and Opsvik gradually pick up the pace, so, too, does Binney's melody turn more stratospheric, leading to a 5/8 solo section for Taborn that's a focused contrast to his earlier unfettered abstractions on "The Blue Whale." When Binney reenters for a thematic reiteration it once again turns to an ostinato over which Sorey thunders and roars before a sudden signal to stop leads to an unexpectedly idiosyncratic line which, yet again, belies Binney's suggestion that this music is "not that hard."
"Curious About Texas" leads to some of Lifted Land
's most flat-out aggressive free play, while "Losing the Central Valley" shifts from an appealing melody couched in a more complex context that, once again, leads to a freely improvised passage with cued segments that lend it an umbrella of form. In an unprecedented move for a Binney recording where he's the sole leader, the saxophonist leaves Taborn to close the record with "Red Cloud," an improvised a cappella
solo that further explores Taborn's ability to think compositionally, even when he's in completely uncharted territory. Not unlike his own Avenging Angel
, Taborn takes a single motivic idea and builds an entireand entirely compellingpiece around it.Lifted Land
represents Binney at his absolute freest...and his most unequivocal, uncompromising best. Always a powerful and inventive soloist, it's not that he hasn't worked in this context before, having ventured into liberated territory on Out of Airplanes
(which, also featuring Opsvik and Taborn, perhaps explaining why he chose to recruit them for Lifted Land
) and South
(ACT, 2002) In both cases, however, they were merely brief contrastsmore like palette cleansersto the more structure-based compositions that ultimately defined them. With Lifted Land
Binney doesn't just release himself more liberally from the shackles of structure when the spirit moves him, he throws them away entirely on a recording whose compositional excellence is as revelational as its even vaster terrain, where the unexpected lurks around every corner and rests in every nook and crannydiscovered and further explored by a quartet unerringly worthy of the trust, required by Binney, to comfortably document it in the space of but a single day's session space.
Personnel: David Binney: alto saxophone; Craig Taborn: piano; Eivind Opsvik: bass; Tyshawn Sorey: drums.