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Barefooted Town  


David Binney liner notes

Barefooted Town

(Criss Cross)


Continuing Saga of the Strong Seeker


            I remember distinctly during the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival, sifting through and measuring up the usual blur of stimuli, seeking out the prizes among prizes in the program. In one corner, there was Wayne Shorter, in the finest of his performance I’d ever heard – playing up his suits as composer and soloist by meshing his free-wheeling quartet and the score-heeding Imani Winds. And then, in another corner, as part of the late night haunt of the Salle du Gesu series where much of the festival’s meatier music takes place, another clear highlight of the festival rang out, true and bold: David Binney came out with his solid quartet, wailing and brooding, locked into the provocative evocations of his unique writing and seizing multiple “aha” moments as a player.

Shorter and Binney stole the show that year, in my mind, and the artistic links between them are greater than first impressions might suggest. Both saxists have honed their artistic personae through a passionate and singular way with both horn and pen (or mouse), and both have trail blazed subtle pathways of expression and embraced melodic/harmonic roads less taken. They are neither avant-garde or mainstream, and generally dodging anything akin to dogma or ism. They are who they are, and getting deeper so.

            This delicate yet binding balance is something we hear plenty of on Binney’s third Criss Cross album, Barefooted Town, a work bristling with intelligence and energy on many levels. Plus heart: Binney blows mightily, as one who must be called of the great alto saxists of our time, and his writing can be tough and artfully knotty, but he is also an inveterate romantic, on his own terms. From the compact suite that is the opening tune, “Dignity,” with its yearning vocal part by the leader at the end, through the muscular impressionism of title track and the angularly balladic finale, “Once, When She Was Here,” this song set tells heartfelt stories we can sense, through the prism of abstraction.

            Joining the leader in this sextet context are allies old and new, all sensitive to what Binney is about. We know to expect empathic interplay from Binney’s longtime collaborator Mark Turner, an uncommonly sensitive tenor saxist, but the striking newcomer to the fold is young, fast-rising trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, a thinkinger person’s dynamo who blows hot and cold on this session – in the most artful way. Binney’s solid yet, equally critically, sentient and flexible rhythm mates, pianist David Virelles, bassist Eivind Opsvik, and drummer Dan Weiss, establish an ideal, flexible foundation for Binney’s creations.

            No less a source than Pat Metheny has registered his great admiration for Binney’s recent work, enthusing wildly about Binney’s powerful previous album, Graylen Epicenter, on his own Mythology label. And, not incidentally, some Metheny-esque characteristics play into Binney’s compositional palette, more in sweep and spirit than literal musical vocabulary. The addition of Binney’s own spare vocal parts in the mix, a third lead voice mixed with alto and trumpet, makes for another parallel to Metheny’s own use of wordless voice as a humanizing textural element.

            At the same time, Binney’s compositional interests over the years have also synched up with the musical playing field of musicians including Steve Coleman and other post-M-Base musicians. (Akinmusire’s time spent playing with and learning from Coleman makes the emerging high-profile trumpeter an ideal part of this ensemble). It’s all about the intellectual pursuits of metric maze-making, of finding funk and a new cerebral flavor of swing through experimentation with meters, lines and rhythms off to the side of standard metric practice. We hear less of that branch of Binney’s writing on Barefooted Town, but those ideas are woven seamlessly into the music’s fabric.

            No doubt partly because of his uncompromising musical voice and resistance to fitting tidily into given and/or commercial byways of the jazz scene at large, Binney is one of those important American jazz artists who has often found more love across the Atlantic and other shores. To say that America fails to recognize the majesty and sophistication of its greatest art form, jazz, is a bumper-sticker cliché and a waste of ink by this point, but Binney’s extended saga as an American deserving greater recognition in his own country revives the old saw.

            But he is American, through and through. Born in Florida, decamping briefly in Detroit and mostly raised in the humble beach burg of Ventura, California (also the home turf of Joanne Brackeen, incidentally), Binney made the logical eastward trek to New York in 1980, a talented 19-year-old who quickly raised his own bar after studies with Phil Woods, Dave Liebman and George Coleman. But from the beginning, Binney sounded like a musician with a strong sense of self. He has always tended toward self-reliance and self-definition. Binney launched his recording life with Point Game, on Owl, with the seminal help of an NEA grant, and recorded for Criss Cross, ACT, Red and other labels, but he also followed his DIY heart and launched his own label, Mythology, in 1998 and has produced a goodly number of albums by now, his own and others.

Now, as Binney – born in 1961 - crosses the mid-stride, mid-career border into life as a fiftysomething, we can look back over his sizable body of work to date and see the evolutionary trails along the way. We can follow the artistic line from Barefooted Town all the way back twenty-plus years, and recognize a strongly creative and personal approach to music which has been at once assured and ever-searching and growing. He worked in distinctive semi-electric bands early on, Lost Tribe and Lan Xang, with such empathetic cohorts as tenor saxist Donny McCaslin, drummer Ben Perowsky and guitarist Adam Rogers, fashioning a bright and refreshing late-breaking ripple in the “fusion” sound, with artfulness fully engaged.

            Along the way, he has worked regularly with such kindred spirits – and well-known jazz world mainstays - as Chris Potter, Craig Taborn and Brian Blade – often in his regular laboratory and hometown gig haunt, the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. The 55 is a famed room, of course, an intimate but mighty venue just around the corner from the Village Vanguard, and known to host music of a heated and venturesome nature. Binney is among its prized regulars on the roster. In a sideman role, Binney has been tapped by Cecil McBee, the Gil Evans band, Jim Hall, Uri Caine’s jazzed-up/jazzed-down classical project, Medeski, Martin and Wood. To cite a couple more relevant names, he has also played with both Maceo Parker and Maria Schneider. It could be said that the stylistic polarities of the latter two artists perhaps neatly touch on the range and expressive arc of Binney’s musical persona, one both cerebral and fiery, a post-modernist romantic with funk residue in the veins.

            Said duality is alive and well on Barefooted Town, and guided by a new level of maturity and depth in Binney’s work, as saxist and conceptualist-composer. This is the next and logical chapter in his Criss Cross discography, following on the heels of 2005’s Bastion of Sanity and Cities and Desire, released in 2006. Hints of narrative and impressions of untold tales are woven into Binney’s compositional style, and telegraphed as well in the poetic flavor of his titles, including “Barefooted Town,” “Secret Miracle” and “The Edge of Seasons,” the album’s longest track, a small suite of a piece, with varying and contrasting sections. It moves from the soft, gentle and open feeling passage opening and recurring throughout the song and another section inflected by Binney’s metric madness, layering time signatures in a brainy but musical way. A transitional zigzagging motif mediates the musical plotting. Pianist Virelles unveils a moving, roving solo, leading into one of Binney’s smartly sculpted solo constructions he’s known for.

“Seven Sixty,” on the other hand, comes bursting out of the gate, with a driving and weaving melodic line laid out by horns atop Weiss’ tighten-up drum groove, a mix of a jazz ethos and the crisp drumming stamp of funksters James Brown and Tower of Power (another branch of Binney’s influence tree, to be sure). As Binney launches into the expressive, gymnastic throes of his solo, contrasted by Akinmusire’s spare, understated turn and Virelles’ thickening plot of a solo, Weiss loosens the funk grip, yielding more fully to the jazz zone, before the recapitulation of the feisty, snaky melody brings on the finale, headily.

            Fittingly enough, “Barefooted Town” itself may be something of the nucleus and/or central statement of the album, anchoring the album’s overall musical arc by being situated roughly at the center of the sequence. Here again, Weiss’ drums roam to suit the surroundings, with an open-feeling, semi-soloing mode throughout much of the tune (think Tony Williams on “Nefertiti”), with the task of holding down the rhythmic fort left to Virelles and bassist Opsvic’s hypnotically tolling chords, running from top to bottom. Binney’s solo leans into the winds of abstraction and dissonance, going expressionistic for a cause, while the long-toned melody descends into the mix, with Akinmusire’s low tones juxtaposed against Binney’s ethereal vocal part on high.

            Towards the album’s final stretch, the going gets more relaxed and reflective, easing out of the more fiery episodes earlier in the journey in sequence of this carefully-paced album. “A Night Every Day” lays out its simple, cyclical melody – almost a chant – loosely among the horns, in a way reminiscent of the old Dave Holland quintet context (with its front line, it happens, featuring a young Steve Coleman).

            Closing on a wistful grace note, Barefooted Town drifts away purposefully with “Once When She was Here” (the title itself sets up an expectation of yearning and introspection)

This darkly lovely ballad is introduced by Virelles’ tender rubato cadence of chords hanging in air and with its pining but cool melody stated in a kind of entranced breathiness. The song ends, like many of Binney’s pieces, with a looping coda theme, feeling like a place of arrival in the song’s structure, half-unexpected but ultimately feeling just right.

Come to think of it, the tune’s harmonic palette and uncommon melodic twists lead us to come to think of another poetic balladeer, Wayne Shorter. Both rank highly in the implicit, cross-idiomatic confederation of self-knowing searchers.


--Josef Woodard, contributor to Down Beat, the Los Angeles Times, Jazz Times, and many other publications. He is currently working on a biography of Charles Lloyd.