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David Binney: Anacapa

John Kelman By

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Some artists move forward in great leaps and bounds, while others evolve more slowly, over longer periods of time. David Binney is one of those rare musicians who manage to do both. While a sampling of some of his recent albums, such as Bastion of Sanity (2005), Cities and Desire (2006) and Aliso (2010l, all on Criss Cross) paint a picture of the saxophonist as evolutionary, others, like 2009's Third Occasion and 2011's Graylen Epicenter (both on Binney's Mythology Records imprint) suggest he's capable of more revolutionary leaps forward as well. Even his most recent Criss Cross record, 2013's uncharacteristically unshackled Lifted Land, revealed hitherto unknown aspects of an artist whose ears and mind are always open.

But nothing could prepare even for the most seasoned Binney fan for Anacapa, a massive statement for the saxophonist/composer. While it's easy to throw around accolades like "best album to date," every subsequent listen to this remarkable recording makes clear that if this isn't Binney's absolute best record, it's certainly a strong contender, right up there with albums that remain particularly definitive, such as South (ACT, 20011), Graylen Epicenter and Afinidad (Red Records, 2001), Binney's first of three recordings co-led with Venezuelan-born pianist Edward Simon.

Still, there are certain earmarks on Anacapa that identify it instantly as a Binney record, even as the opening, synth-driven "She Loves, Introduction"—a through-composed miniature that, combines a four-on-the-floor electronic pulse with minimalist hints, synthesizers blazing otherworldly textures and close harmonies—suggests something very different going on as well. The album is bookended with the similarly synth but this time also sequencer-driven "She Hates, Outro"—in addition to its minimalist tendencies, also referencing the mitochondria of '70s electronic bands like Tangerine Dream buried somewhere deep in Binney's DNA...and, with his sparse saxophone line floating atop, some genetic coding of British saxophonist John Surman's solo excursions, such as Upon Reflection (ECM, 1980), as well.

Still, while it's possible to delineate individual elements that prove even forward-thinking musicians like Binney don't emerge from a vacuum, it's the confluence of so many of these building blocks in such a deeply personal way that makes Ancapa such a remarkable—and shocking—album from someone whose discography has largely been defined by the sound of surprise.

Binney has worked with both Adam Rogers and Wayne Krantz in the past—Rogers dating right back to Binney's early days with Lost Tribe, the group that, in addition to the saxophonist and guitarist, also introduced David Gilmore, Fima Ephron and Ben Perowsky to the world, while Krantz first collaborated with him on Balance (ACT, 2002)—but, barring a few tracks on Balance, he's never worked with them together on the same record. And while Dan Weiss has been a regular Binney collaborator—alone as well as together with other drummers, like Brian Blade on Graylen EpicenterAnacapa marks the first time the saxophonist has recruited up-and-comer Obed Calvaire; it's also the first time that he's relied on two drummers for most of an album, and the result is music of unbridled energy and sonic density, to a degree rarely before achieved by the saxophonist.

Between Krantz and Rogers, the saxophonist's own overdubbed horns—this is the first time since Fiesta de Agosto (Red Records, 2005) that Binney has employed so many saxophones—along with pianist John Escreet and, on some tracks, vocals from himself, Louis Cole and Nina Geiger, Binney has more potential for color and interweaving lines than ever before, with "The Golden Zone" an early example of Binney's making full use of complex counterpoint while, at the same time, retaining the touchstone lyricism that's defined his work as far back as 1995 and The Luxury of Guessing (Audioquest). And while there's considerable compositional structure on this five-minute piece, there's still room enough for Binney to stretch out on his main axe (alto) for a fiery solo made all the more so by Weiss and Calvaire's incendiary interplay, the whole thing held down by Matt Brewer's unshakable pulse—here, as is the case throughout Anacapa, solely on electric bass.

Elsewhere, Anacapa rocks—and rocks hard. "Massive Humanity" is driven by a potent twin-drum back beat, a throbbing synth bass line and some massively overdriven guitar chords, leading to a series of shifting harmonies that act as a foundation for Weiss and Calvaire to solo in tandem...and pretty much blow the roof off the joint.

Half of Anacapa's five tracks—Binney compositions, all—range from nine to twelve minutes, providing ample room for soloing amidst some of Binney's most complex—and epic—writing to date. And if Lifted Land represented some of his flat-out freest work to date, despite Anacapa being far more rooted in composition, there are moments where Binney allows his extended group to dissolve into complete and utter free playing, as he does on "Imagination Sets Us Free." The album's most expansive track, it begins in visceral funk territory, with Rogers' lower-register, overdriven chord-based playing contrasting the grit of Krantz's upper register lines. A scorching solo from Binney leads to Escreet's most impressive solo of the set, blending McCoy Tyner-esque modality with more delicate phrasing as a lead-in to Krantz's turn, where things really begin to break down. As he opens up into the kind of oblique angularity upon which at least some of his career has been predicated, it first turns into a fiery exchange with Calvaire but then, with Weiss and everyone in the pool, into a period of reckless abandon from everyone, Binney once again taking the lead as the entire band seems to literally lift the energy and density until...suddenly...form reasserts itself with the composition's anthemic coda, driven by the lyrics upon which the song's title is based.

Binney's always been a master of the anthem, and has often incorporated diverse cultural influences, but always in ways that seem to fit his most specific aural universe. "Heart Shaped Mind" may begin as a percussion duo between pandeiro player Sergio Krakowski and Weiss, who moves from his kit to tabla—an instrument long part of his musical and spiritual studies—but there's nothing particularly eastern in the flavor of the writing. Instead, as one of Anacapa's least crowded compositions, it's an ambling piece reliant upon Binney's signature use of thematic unison lines to open up into a lengthy alto solo as much about the group's interpretive expressionism as it is Binney's. He may be the soloist, but there's a wealth of big-eared interaction going on all around him that's as exhilarating as it is intuitive, even as Binney winds down and passes the baton to Escreet.

Thanks to consistent placement in the mix, for those unfamiliar with some of the players it's possible to identify their styles: Krantz and Calvaire in the left channel, Rogers and Weiss in the right. But such practicalities aside, Anacapa is a creative high watermark for Binney on a number of fronts: compositionally, it's his most richly realized album to date while, at the same time, incorporating his relatively newfound leanings toward completely unfettered freedom; its twin-guitar/twin-drums lineup lends it a density and attendant excitement that's palpable, as Binney makes terrific use, at times, of as many as eight musicians at once to weave his intricate musical tapestries, while also allowing the music to breathe through breaking things down into smaller subsets; and, as strong a player and bandleader as Binney has been for many years, he's never managed to squeeze so much challenging music into so little time.

Criss Cross sessions typically last a single day and if Binney did, indeed, record the 71-minute Anacapa in a single six-hour session then it's an even more remarkable feat than what it is for the music and performances alone. But however it was recorded, Anacapa represents Binney at his absolute best as a writer, as a performer, and as a bandleader who not only makes astute choices as to who is right for the music at hand, but in the freedom he affords them to lift the music off the written page and bring it to what is, on Anacapa, a vivid, full and creative life.

Track Listing: She Loves, Introduction; The Golden Zone; Massive Humanity; Distant City; Anacapa; Waiting for the Blast; Imagination Sets Us Free; Heart Shaped Mind; Santo Spirito; She Hates, Outro

Personnel: David Binney: Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Soprano Sax, Vocals, Synths, Bass; Wayne Krantz: Guitar; Adam Rogers: Guitar; John Escreet: Piano, Rhodes; Matt Brewer: Electric Bass; Obed Calvaire: Drums; Dan Weiss: Drums, Tabla; Sergio Krakowski: Pandeiro; Louis Cole: Vocals; Nina Geiger: Vocals

Title: Anacapa | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Criss Cross

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