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.

AAJ: His arco intro to "From This Far" is simple yet stunning, and it almost slices the CD in two, in some ways.

DB: He plays arco a lot more when we play live, and it's just unbelievable. He's an expert arco player, which is unusual for a bassist. He's very, very in tune, even though he'll play out of tune sometimes on purpose. He's from Norway, and he'll play an arco solo and it'll sound like some sort of Scandinavian electronica record. It's really unique, and I really love that. He's an amazing musician.

AAJ: Your secret weapon on Graylen Epicenter is Gretchen Parlato. Her singing on "Home" is obviously powerful, but her presence in general lends so much to the listening experience. How did you bring her into this music?

DB: Gretchen is somebody I had heard over the years, though I'd only played with her a couple of times. The first time was years ago at a jam session at the Jazz Gallery—that Adam Rogers had put together, which I think was a benefit for New Orleans when the floods happened—and I thought, "Wow, she really sings great." She's from L.A. and I'm from L.A., and we just got along. We had occasion to play together again on an Afinidad project, which I wrote "All of Time" for. We did those concerts, and I really liked her melodies on my tunes and how it sounded.

Then there was the influence of the Swiss gig I was telling you about, called the Langnau Festival. When you're there for a week, you also teach—and the festival head, Walter Schmocker, needed seven instruments. He was going to get various people and throw us all together, but I said I could get seven musicians that are really great and put the whole thing together, and he said okay. So, I called Gretchen and she did a great job.

Once we got into the music, I thought it would be great to record all this and let Gretchen do her thing. She wasn't used to singing those kinds of melodies, so she was nervous about singing my music at first. She didn't think she'd be able to do it, but I said: "You'll be able to do it, no problem." Sure enough, you give it to her and she nails it. She's a really, really good musician.

I think this project was good for her too, because it gave her confidence to sing music that she'd never really sung before She sounds amazing on this project. It gives the record a sound that I've had before, maybe with Luciana Souza on Afinidad (Red Records, 2001) or Oceanos (Criss Cross, 2007), but there's something about Gretchen's sound that really matches the music I write, and I really love what she brings to it.

AAJ: She brings a lot to the CD. Where did you get the title, "Any Year's Costume"?

DB: To be honest, I don't remember, but sometimes I get things from books I've read or just looking through books. Sometimes I'm reading, and a phrase will come up that I'll note and put it on the list of song titles. I always have a list of song titles going, so that when I finish a record I can kind of match things—unlike Graylen Epicenter, where the titles came up just before they had to.

AAJ: One name is as good as another, but people usually want to know the origin of the title. Does it get a bit wearying when people ask you all the time?

Gretchen Parlato

DB: I totally understand it. Anthony Braxton used to write math problems for the titles of his music. The titles can start to become somewhat descriptive in somebody's mind, and for a long time I didn't like that because a lot of the time the title didn't have much to do with the feeling I got from the music. In recent years I've gotten more into the idea of titles, because of exactly what happened with Graylen Epicenter—when they take on a meaning of their own in relation to the music, which is also cool.

I guess, because I know this record so well, that when you say the titles I know which tune is which, but that's unusual for me. A lot of times, people will mention a title of some of my music, and I have to think about it: "Which tune is that?" It's the same with other people's records I listen to; somebody will say they love this song or that song, and I won't know the name. I know it by sound, but I won't relate it to the title. The titles aren't that important to me, but they are to other people, so I take that into consideration. But in reality, for me, they don't really mean much.

AAJ: The shortest composition on Graylen Epicenter, "Same Stare, Different Thought," is also one of the most striking, with just yourself, Akinmusire on trumpet and Parlato on vocals. Could you talk us through this song?

DB: I do a lot of writing that I haven't presented so much on record, but I've had something in the works for a couple of years, which is basically an album of string orchestra material with saxophone and piano, which doesn't have any improvisation. Sometimes I write these little pieces, almost as a classical writer would, and put them aside, and I had written this piece during the writing of Graylen Epicenter.

I think I wrote it as a through-composed piece for me, Ambrose and Gretchen. I gave it to them, and Gretchen kind of freaked out because she thought it was really difficult. But then we got to the session, we recorded all the material, and at the very end Gretchen said, "Are we going to do the through-composed piece?"

I said, "I don't know; it's hard. Maybe we shouldn't bother with it."

And she said: "Well, I spent so much time getting it together, let's at least try it."

I said I'd give it 15 minutes, and if we didn't get it in that time then forget it. So we did it, and I was kind of surprised how they had worked on it and how quickly they got it and how quickly it came together. It just worked. We did three or four takes of it, and I knew from that, I had gotten it. Thanks to Gretchen for talking me into trying that on the session because we needed every second for the other material, and I didn't want to waste time, and I thought that might. But they got it together and it worked great.

AAJ: Graylen Epicenter is a very powerful 75 minutes of music. How do you feel about it in the context of the music you've made so far in your career?

DB: It's a very important one for me. I knew in its making that it was very possibly the best record I've made. With every record that you make, you always learn something; you're always refining things. I've always done something much better on each record, in a way, and at the end there's always the feeling that next time I could really do this or that. There's always that process.

You have to understand that there's two different kinds of record I make; I make these records that are quick, like for Criss Cross, that are basically limited by time and money, that I look at as a little bit more of an old-school blowing session—which for me still involves a bunch of difficult compositions [laughs]. We go in there, we do two or three takes, and that's it. Then I do records on my own label [Mythology Records] which I think of as more produced. They come together through live playing for the most part, but then I tend to spend a lot of time producing them, adding things, editing, really refining it because I have the time to do it, unlike when I'm doing it for a small label. Graylen Epicenter falls into that category, as does Third Occasion (Mythology Records, 2009), Out of Airplanes (Mythology Records, 2006), Welcome to Life (Mythology Records, 2004). I spent a lot of time and put a lot of effort into those records.

Graylen Epicenter was probably the most effort I've ever put into anything. I think I did because I knew that it was something special, and I had a vision of it as it started unfolding. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, probably more pop music, alternative rock, electronic music than anything else. I wanted to bring those worlds together a little bit more than I have in earlier releases; that's why I ended up singing on it. 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. There are elements of that, and I enjoyed working on that. I think it's an important record in my discography.

AAJ: No doubt about that. You mentioned Criss Cross, and you have just released another CD—Barefooted Town—on that label, right?

DB: That's right. The Criss Cross record prior to this one, Aliso (Criss Cross, 2010), we didn't even rehearse for. I almost didn't do it because of scheduling, when I realized that none of us were in town to do a rehearsal. I almost bagged it, but Dan Weiss said, "No, let's do it. We'll go in and we'll nail the music." So, we went in and played, and it actually came out great. It was like an old- school blowing session, like Blue Note, and I kind of kept it in that spirit.

This newest one isn't exactly that; we only rehearsed the once for it, and a lot of the music is very difficult. But it's with Ambrose [Akinmusire], and [saxophonist] Mark Turner on the horns, and then David Virtelles is the young pianist—he lives in New York but he's from Cuba originally—Dan Weiss and Eivind Opsvik again. They're all great musicians, and I just wrote with them in mind. It came out great. It's a very good record.

I feel good about my playing. It's hard to play on your own records—and anybody will tell you that—because you're concerned with everything else; it's much easier to be a sideman on other people's records. I like the way I play on my records, but its nerve wracking sometimes. But on Graylen Epicenter and on Barefooted Town, I really feel great about how I play. I think that maybe started happening with Third Occasion, I started to like the way I was playing on my records. Before that, I liked the records a lot, but I always had I little bit of a problem with the way I played on them. So I think I'm getting that down—to be comfortable playing on my own records.

AAJ: What are you doing gig-wise these days? Are you touring at all with the Graylen Epicenter lineup, or is this project already something that belongs to the past?

DB: That's hard to tour because just to get everybody together at the same time is a logistical nightmare [laughs]. Even getting the quartet of that together wasn't easy; we did the Newport Festival and we did a couple of other things last year with me and Brian [Blade], Craig [Taborn] and Eivind [Opsvik]. But I'm touring; I was in Ireland recently, where I was playing with some guys from Dublin, [bassist] Mick Coady, [drummer] Sean Carpio , [saxophonist] Michael Buckley and [pianist] Ivo Neame. They're really good players, and great guys. We did some gigs in Navan, Waterford and Dublin, and we did a recording.

I've just been in L.A. for three weeks, where I plan on spending a lot more time. I'm originally from there but I've spent the last 30 years in New York. I feel that there's something really happening in L.A., finally. There's a young thing happening and an opportunity thing starting to happen there and I want to be part of that, so I'm going to spend more time in Los Angeles. I'm touring with my own band on the West coast, and then I'm on the road in Europe for six weeks with [drummer] Antonio Sanchez, which is a new quartet.

AAJ: What are your recording movements these days?

I am working on another record with a French label, and I'm still working on that classical thing. The next record might be something totally different—it might be an electric record with [pianist] John Escreet, [bassist] Tim Lefebvre, and a young drummer out of L.A. named Louis Cole. I've got a lot of stuff going on.

AAJ: You'd have to be a pretty organized person, no?

DB: To some extent. It's funny that that's come about, because when I was younger I think I was the least organized person there was, but somehow in my life I've developed into being pretty organized [laughs]. You have to be, to keep a career in the arts together.

Selected Discography

David Binney, Barefooted Town (Criss Cross, 2011)
David Binney, Graylen Epicenter (Mythology, 2011)
Nguyen Le, Songs of Freedom (ACT, 2011)
Adrianos Santos Quintet, In Session (KingJazz AD Music, 2010)
David Binney, Aliso (Criss Cross, 2010)
Alper Yimaz, Over the Clouds (Kayique Records, 2010)
David Binney/Alan Ferber, In The Paint (Posi-Tone Records, 2009)
David Binney, Third Occasion (Mythology Records, 2009)
Vinicius Cantuaria, Cymbals (Koch, 2008)
David Binney/Edward Simon, Oceanos (Criss Cross, 2007)
David Binney, Out of Airplanes (Mythology Records, 2006)
David Binney, Cities and Desire (Criss Cross, 2006)
David Binney, Bastion of Sanity (Criss Cross, 2005)
David Binney, Welcome to Life (Mythology Records, 2004)
John Zorn, Voices in the Wilderness (Tzadik Records, 2003)
David Binney/Jeff Hirshfield, A Small Madness (Auand, 2003)
Chris Potter, Traveling Mercies (Universal Distribution, 2002)
David Binney, South (ACT Music, 2001)
Lan Xang, Hidden Garden (Naxos Record, 2000)
David Binney, Free to Dream (Mythology Records, 1999)
Uri Caine, Mahler: Urlicht/Primal Light (Winter & Winter, 1998)
Lost Tribe, Many Lifetimes (Arabesque Recording, 1998)
David Binney, Luxury of Guessing (Audioquest, 1995)
Lost Tribe, Lost Tribe (Windham Hill Records, 1993)
David Binney, Point Game (Owl, 1989)

Photo Credits
Page 1, 4: Courtesy of David Binney
Page 2, David Binney: Dave Kauffman
Page 2, Wayne Krantz: John Kelman
Page 3, Craig Taborn: John Sharpe
Page 3, Gretchen Parlato: Jonas Pryner Anderson
Page 5: John Kelman

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