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David Binney's 'Graylen Epicenter' Marks Creative Breakthrough for Jazz Saxophonist


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Alto saxophonist David Binney has been on the New York jazz scene for years now, collaborating regularly with fellow saxophonists Chris Potter or Donny McCaslin, or playing the hired gun for icons like Jim Hall, Bill Frisell and countless others. He's released several records as a leader on his own label and smaller European imprints, becoming known as something of a musicians' musician due to the stellar list of players who line up to play on his low-profile gigs at the 55 Bar and other smaller New York City jazz clubs.

“It's like Woody Allen or John Cassavetes with their movies," Binney says with a laugh. “Actors will do anything to be in their films. I've kind of gotten to that point where these really great musicians are just superexcited to be on the record, which is nice."

His career profile is, however, changing with the arrival of 'Graylen Epicenter,' which is receiving the kind of rave reviews that lead to awards and slots on year-end best-of lists. The album features a who's who of the New York club scene, including Potter, pianist Craig Taborn, drummers Brian Blade and Dan Weiss, percussionist Kenny Wollesen, vocalist Gretchen Parlato, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, guitarist Wayne Krantz and others.

Known as a composer who writes rigorously demanding songs, Binney creates a musical mosaic whose density of ideas is only matched by the beauty of the melodies. It is commonplace for jazz musicians to write melody that is a jumping-off point for a series of improvisations by different soloists—and Binney tends to do that more conventional head-solo-solo-out approach on his European releases—but he takes a more personal tack when he releases albums like this on his own Mythology Records.

“There is a lot of harmonic motion and a lot of writing on this record, and in records to come," he says. “I did a classical commission a few years back, and once I started writing like that I realized that it was the way I've always wanted to write. Since I was always writing for jazz bands in the past, I was having to stop the compositions in order to make room for the improvisations. I'd be writing vamps and stuff, but now with this harmonic motion it is more like a modern 'Giant Steps' or something. You have to play through the progression to get to the end of a section."

Watch John Coltrane's Annotated 'Giant Steps' Video

The use of a larger band with multiple percussionists sets a tone where close listening reveals layer upon layer of ideas—things fade in and out or are dealt with simultaneously by different players. Sometimes it's hard to even tell who is doing what in the horn section. This is in part due to Parlato's vocals, which are often wordless harmonies as if she's part of the horn section. Binney, on the other hand, steps out of the horn section to occasionally sing impressionistic lines that are more musical than offering any real linear story line.

“I don't think people realize that a lot of the melodies I've written over the years have been done by me singing and playing the piano, and then playing them on my horn or having other horn players play that singing part," Binney points out. “It's not like I'm singing lyrics; there are lots of random words that just come into my head and make no sense. This time around I thought I'd just leave it on there because I had the other instruments, and though I had Gretchen Parlato singing melodies I was hearing other melodies as well."

Binney feels that the voices move the music from jazz into a more rock music direction that he believes is easier for audiences to digest. This approach is immediately obvious on the knotty 10-minute opener, 'All of Time,' as well as on 'Everglow.' 'Home,' which makes it third appearance in the Binney catalog on 'Graylen Epicenter,' features a new set of Parlato lyrics with the band backing in her in a way that isn't all that different than one of Radiohead's slow-building linear songs, except that the music here is acoustic.

“It happens sort of naturally, but once it does happen I found that it is an area that I wouldn't mind trying to bridge on purpose," says of this breakthrough. “Because its not really being done in an organic way by anyone else, at least no one that I'm hearing. There's been jazz-rock, which is electric jazz, essentially. There's been rock influenced by jazz. But there isn't anything I can think of that melds the two in an organic way."

Writer Ben Ratliff compared Binney's music to that of Steely Dan in his review of 'Graylen Epicenter' in the New York Times, and that is on the mark; but whereas the writing of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker is wonderfully tight while retaining strong elements of jazz, it almost sounds dumbed-down in comparison to Binney's more sprawling vision, which makes no concessions to commercial expectations.

So dedicated is Binney to these labors-of-love CDs that he's even stopped touring with his own bands for the most part to focus even more on his music. However, out-of-towners should fret not: There appears to be a method to this madness.

“My concern right now is to make a lot of really good records," he points out. “I play all the time in [New York City]. Tonight I play at the 55 Bar. I get my fill of live playing. If I have a lot of really good records people will just start calling me. I took my bands out for years and it's fun, but it's months of bureaucratic work and a waste of a lot of valuable musical time. With this record, I'm already beginning to see a change. I've turned down a lot of work in the last year and a half, and the minute you start doing that it's amazing to see how much people want it more."

Listen to David Binney's 'All of Time' on Video

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