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David Binney: Graylen Epicenter

John Kelman By

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Even with artists whose eyes are always on a dangling carrot that keeps them moving relentless forward, there are albums where quantum leaps are made. Since 2005, alto saxophonist/composer David Binney has been alternating between small ensemble, inherently quick-and-dirty sessions for the Dutch Criss Cross label like Aliso (2010) and more ambitious projects on his own Mythology label, including the particularly excellent Third Occasion (2009). If Third Occasion found Binney's reckless yet unerringly focused playing and instantly recognizable and influential writing at a new peak of combined form and freedom, then Graylen Epicenter takes it all a step further, with an even larger ensemble cherry picked from his growing cadre of stellar New York musicians, and some of his best writing and most powerful playing to date.

Binney has combined drums and percussion before, bringing cross-cultural polyrhythms into play on albums like Océanos (Criss Cross, 2007), with pianist/co-leader Edward Simon, but this is the first time he's combined two percussionists with—at least on four of Graylen's ten original compositions—two drummers. Combining the flexibly responsive, effortlessly powerful and vastly influential Brian Blade with the less-known but equally inventive, fluid and big-eared Dan Weiss, make tracks like the opening "All of Time" bristle with unfettered energy. Graylen's first solo is, in fact, handed over to Weiss and Blade, who solo in tandem across a throbbing ostinato with absolute abandon, but equally clear mutual respect, giving the disc an emotional kick-start that only increases throughout its 75-minute duration.

Featuring the largest collective ensemble since Free to Dream (Mythology, 1998), Graylen also has one of the strongest lineups of solo firepower in Binney's career. Guitarist Wayne Krantz plays with gritty, electrified cerebralism on the epic and episodic title track, but turns to acoustic guitar for a closing, ostinato-driven solo on "From This Far," its dark, brooding first half—Gretchen Parlato's wordless vocals melding seamlessly with Binney—contrasting with its knottier, more propulsive conclusion. On "Terrorists and Movie Stars," Binney and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter each take unconstrained and incendiary individual solos before combining in almost unbearable intensity, driven by Blade and Weiss, but equally by pianist Craig Taborn's undercurrent of dense, block chords and pulsing lines, from bassist Eivind Opsvik, that are more felt than heard.

Parlato executes remarkable intervallic gymnastics on the through-composed chamber miniature, "Same Stare, Different Thought," and sings her own lyrics on Binney's third recording of the more romantic, but ultimately energetic yet unfailingly lyrical "Home"—previously heard, as an instrumental, on Out of Airplanes (Mythology, 2006) and Océanos (Criss Cross, 2007)—with characteristic restraint. Ambrose Akinmusire, back from Third Occasion, also appears as one of Binney's newest friends; an increasingly active trumpeter well worth following.

But it's Binney who's Graylen Epicenter greatest strength. Since appearing on the radar with Lost Tribe in the early 1990s, his significance as a musician's musician has been on the ascendance, while strangely eluding greater popular acclaim. Listening to artists who've managed more prominence—Blade, Potter, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel—Binney's underlying touchstone is unmistakable, and on the strength of Third Occasion and, now, the stunning Graylen Epicenter, it's high time he joined his friends in the limelight.

Track Listing: All of Time; Graylen Epicenter; Equality at Low Levels; Everglow; From This Far; Terrorists and Movie Stars; Same Stare, Different Thought; Home; Any Years Costume; Waking to Waves.

Personnel: David Binney: alto and soprano saxophones, vocal; Gretchen Parlato: vocal; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet; Chris Potter: tenor saxophone; Craig Taborn: piano; Wayne Krantz: guitar; Eivind Opsvik: bass; Brian Blade: drums (1-4, 6, 8-10); Dan Weiss: drums (1, 5, 6, 9, 10); Kenny Wollesen: percussion, vibes; Rogerio Boccato: percussion; Nina Geiger: vocal harmony (10).

Title: Graylen Epicenter | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Mythology Records

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