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David Binney: Underground Tremors

Ian Patterson By

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There are recordings that constitute a personal high watermark for a composer; then there are, less frequently, recordings that mark an era. Graylen Epicenter (2011), alto saxophonist David Binney's latest recording on his own label, Mythology Records, is both. For more than two decades, this exhilarating alto saxophonist has made a string of absorbing recordings as leader that have cemented his reputation as one of the most exciting and original musicians/composers in New York.

By his own admission, Binney has never put more energy into anything as he has for Graylen Epicenter, aided by regular Binney collaborators pianist Craig Taborn, bassist Eivind Opsvik, drummers Brian Blade and Dan Weiss, saxophonist Chris Potter, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, guitarist Wayne Krantz and percussionists Kenny Wollesen and Rogerio Bocatto. The energy levels are high and the playing intuitive and incendiary. Binney's own playing is inspired, and as he relates, more relaxed than at any time previously on record.

The compositions on Graylen Epicenter are epic in construction, and reveal more of Binney's everyday listening habits than previously. "If you dropped a needle on the record, at one point it would sound like a jazz record and at another point it might sound like you're listening to a rock record," Binney explains. The pop element is provided by vocalist Gretchen Parlato, whose contribution to the music is significant. Krantz leaves a rockier imprint, with one of his best solos on record. Clearly, all the musicians are inspired by Binney's writing, which is episodic, flowing and dramatic.

If Graylen Epicenter marks a high point in David Binney's discography thus far, then it also stands as one of the best jazz recordings of the last 20 years. On it, Binney's ability to seamlessly weave hard-blowing jazz with nuances of pop, rock, blues, choral airs, and meditative or abstract passages results in emotionally charged music which digs its claws into you from the highly original opening salvo—and what an opening!— but which refuses to let go, long after the 75 absorbing minutes have ended. Simply put, Graylen Epicenter is a classic of our time.

All About Jazz: Did you have a very clear concept of what you wanted with Graylen Epicenter from the outset?

David Binney: My concept came from knowing who I wanted to use on the record. Initially I knew I was going to use Brian Blade and Craig Taborn and Eivind Opsvik. I also had a week of gigs and teaching in Europe, where I was bringing seven people over, including Wayne Krantz, Ambrose Akinmusire, Gretchen Parlato and Dan Weiss. So last summer I had these two groups working, who I was going to write music for, and I knew I'd probably record it. I was writing with them in mind. Once you start recording the music then you see how things come about. Things change too, and I started to think about adding other people, percussion and other things.

AAJ: You tend to play with the same circle of musicians, and you use them again on Graylen Epicenter. How often are you impressed by a new voice in New York?

DB: I'm pretty connected to the young scene in New York, and I always have been, so it's pretty often that I hear a young voice that I get excited about, especially in the last few years.

AAJ: The name of the CD is intriguing. Where does it come from?

DB: The name is just completely made up. As with the music, I'm just concerned with sounds. I hadn't named any of the tunes, even after playing them and recording them. I was going into the studio to master the record, and you have to have the name by then because they basically burn them into the CD, so on the subway train on the way in I was trying to think of names. It just came into my head, and I don't know why. When I got to the studio I said to the engineer, Mike Marciano: "Mike, what do you think of this name, Graylen Epicenter?" He said: "I really like it. What's it mean?" I told him I just liked the way it sounds.

It's interesting, because once you do something like that it takes on a life of its own, and once I gave it to the artist [Howie Shia] he drew all these things based on the name and listening to the music. It's really cool. I like coming up with things that mean nothing, and then people put some meaning on it.

AAJ: Is it strange that people put meaning on your music that you perhaps don't feel is there?

DB: That's a good question, actually. With Graylen Epicenter people want to know what it means, and they want to know the story behind it. That's a problem I have a lot of the time, especially with the grants situation, at least in the States; they always want you to describe your music with words, and for me that's not important. For me, it's just feeling—it's just about sounds.

AAJ: The first track on Graylen Epicenter, "All in Time," is a very powerful, episodic number with a very dynamic opening. Did you have any doubts about opening the record with this dramatic two-minute drum duet from Blade and Weiss?



DB: I wrote that composition originally for a gig I had with a different band called Afinidad, which I have with [pianist] Edward Simon, [guitarist] Adam Rogers, [bassist] Scott Colley, Gretchen [Parlato] and [drummer] Antonio Sanchez, along with percussionist Rogerio Boccato, who's also on Graylen Epicenter. We had these gigs down south in Arkansas, Kansas City and so on, and I had this idea for a drum solo that Antonio [Sanchez] and Rogerio [Boccato] could play together.

My idea with this composition was to play this head that's not too long and right away goes into a drum solo, an intense drum solo. A few years ago, I had Brian [Blade] and Dan [Weiss] together in a quartet and it worked well, so I knew it would work well on this record. I like to start gigs with that tune, because the melody followed instantly by a really intense drum solo shocks people. It really gets people's attention. I figured I'd start the record like that, and people would either like it or not.

AAJ: It's an explosive start. Blade and Weiss play so sympathetically on four of Graylen Epicenter's tracks. Was there a temptation to use them on every one?

DB: Yeah, there was a temptation to use them together on everything. I thought about it. There were tunes that I thought were not only better for one drummer, but for each of them—tunes where I could really hear Brian [Blade] playing this and another where I knew this has got to be Dan [Weiss]. They're definitely sympathetic, listening musicians, and ultimately playing with them is the same experience, in one way, because they're listening so hard. But in another way, they come from such different angles to the drums, so there were compositions that work better for either one of them. I decided to have them on the tunes that I heard them being really comfortable on. I've played with them both for years, so I know what's going to work and what's not, and I know what's going to be in their comfort zones.

AAJ: The music on Graylen Epicenter is very energetic, epic in fact, yet there's seemingly a simplicity in the approach to making it. It's an interesting juxtaposition.

DB: That's been the way my whole career; what I do is somewhat complex, whether in my improvising or my writing, and yet my whole goal has been to make it sound simple, to make it accessible and something people will enjoy listening to, even if they don't know what jazz is or what improvised music is. It's the same with the way I play; I'm highly technical, but at the same time I'm just trying to play a solo that's emotional and not based on the technique. I want to be able to reach someone who knows nothing about what I'm doing, and yet it is complex to someone who does know what I'm doing.

AAJ: The musicians are all monsters, but how much of the playing on Graylen Epicenter surprised you?

DB: That's an interesting question; in a way I could say that none of it surprised me because I know them really well and I have them there because I know whatever they play is going to be great, but exactly what they play is never determined until they play it. I could answer that in two ways: absolutely nothing surprised me or everything surprised me. I guess it's somewhere in between. I love it all. I love what they did. There are certain things you just couldn't write, and they provide that.

AAJ: The composition Graylen Epicenter is pretty extraordinary, and your playing with Taborn is wonderful. Could you talk a little about this composition?

DB: As I was writing it, I kept hearing it as being a kind of epic thing, and something that I wanted to unfold naturally, but at the same time, I purposefully go through a lot of different moods and sections. Once I'd gone from the first section to the second, I realized that the thing to do was to go through a whole epic story, and that's how it developed. At the end, it finally returns to what it started as, but I twisted that by bringing in a Brazilian samba group, basically. I wanted everything to be ever changing, even if you've heard it before.


Wayne Krantz

AAJ: Wayne Krantz plays beautifully on the track "Graylen Epicenter." What do you like about his playing, or playing with him?

DB: He's just one of the greatest musicians I've ever met. Seriously, he's a unique player. When I put Wayne into a situation, I know is going to be really comfortable for him and something he's going to really enjoy and just eat up. He's just an unbelievable musician, and his time, I mean, any drummer will tell you that they've never played with any instrumentalist who has stronger time than Wayne Krantz. It's like a metronome; it's unbelievably strong. And yet he's always really melodic. That solo on that tune is one of my favorite solos, and I think he really loves it too.

AAJ: Your exchange with Taborn on "Equality at Low Levels" is exhilarating. You two really connect.

Craig Taborn

DB: Craig has been in my bands for years, so we have a lot of experience playing with each other. That section where we're trading, I think I've done it with him on so many things over the years that it's kind of second nature for us. I knew that would work. It wasn't something that I thought about a lot. I love Craig's playing.

AAJ: He brings a lot to the recording, as does Eivind Opsvik. He's a wonderful bassist, he's not really at the fore, but he's felt every step of the way.

DB: I use Eivind because he's just one of my favorite musicians. He's such an unbelievable bassist. I know he's not featured, and on record I tend not to feature a ton of bass solos—live, I do—but Eivind is such a strong player and his role here is much, much stronger than most people would think. What he's doing is really strong and really important. His aesthetic, his time, his sound is just amazing.
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