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David Binney : Interview

Born in Florida and raised in Southern California, saxophonist Dave Binney has been immersed in the New York City jazz scene since his arrival there at the age of 19.  A prolific artist with nine recordings—including the recent Bastion of Sanity (Criss Cross)—under his own name, Binney has also worked with artists as diverse as Cecil McBee, Maceo Parker, Aretha Franklin, and Medeski, Martin & Wood.  Ludwig vanTrikt touched base with Binney earlier this year to talk about his experiences as a musician and producer, as well as his candid opinions of the record industry in general.

Where and when were you born?

Miami, Florida; August 2, 1961.  Raised in Southern California, though.  Ventura, near Santa Barbara.  Paradise except for the music scene.

Do you trace the broad eclecticism of your music to having had such hip parents?

Yeah, probably.  My father was into Trane, Miles, Wayne, Milton, Stevie, Sly, and rock, etc.  I heard a lot of great music growing up.  My mom still listens to cool shit.

Who did you first study with when you lived in L.A.?

I had some local teachers in Ventura and then started studying with a great teacher named Don Raffel in Sherman Oaks.  He played with Nelson Riddle and did all that Sinatra stuff… He grew up with Stan Getz though, and sort of always regretted that he didn’t follow the “artist” route, rather than the “studio” route—although he did real well, lived well, had a family, etc.

Phil Woods and Dave Liebman were two of your past teachers—I have heard mixed things from various musicians about having studied with them.  What was your own experience?

They were great.  I first went to Dave and he sat me down for about two or three hours and just talked to me about music.  Philosophical shit, you know?  Not scales and stuff—things I needed to hear as a 19-year-old.  He helped me out in getting my first record deal too.  Great guy, great musician; doesn’t like bullshit, so if he feels that someone is phony or really not serious about music I think he shuns them a little, which is why you probably have heard negative things about him.  He’s a real New Yorker—that kind of guy that dishes it out, says it like it is... and if you take it and come back strong, he digs you.  If you can’t, well I’d hate to be on that side of him!

I only took one lesson from Phil and he seemed to be the same way as Liebs in his attitude, although his approach was the polar opposite.  He wrote down some stuff on a piece of paper and said, “Learn that and you will never have to come back to me.”  Great stuff—I learned it and never did go back…

Let’s go back to your arrival in New York City at the age of 19—was there much support from other cats?

Other than Liebman?  Not really.  You mean peers?  I didn’t feel support really.  A lot of jam sessions and hanging, way more than now, but people were still trying to cut people, not help them.  But as in any area of life, there are always a few people out there trying to help the guys they thought were worth the effort.  I try to be like that now as much as I can.

In what ways has your music changed since your debut Point Game (Owl Records)?

Lots!  I think that record was pretty “M-Base” influenced, which is what I was listening to around that time—although some of my compositional elements were in place even then and I hear a distinct focus on harmony that the M-Base stuff lacked, I think.  But my rhythmic thing wasn’t together then, so it’s kind of funny that the music was in that vein!  Anyway, I still sort of like the record, but man, have I changed.  I found myself after that CD and never really looked back.  I stopped being interested in the M-Base thing after that too, so it wasn’t an influence on later CDs.  It’s funny because I still get comparisons to Steve Coleman and Greg Osby and M-Base even in this day and age, and it is so funny to me because it doesn’t inform my music in the least.  It seems if you play in an odd-time and/or play intervallically—which I have always done, way before I ever heard of M-Base—then you get compared to those guys.  It really has nothing to do with them.  Don’t get me wrong, they are probably my two favorite alto players of the young generation because I think they are by far the most original, but I don’t listen to it anymore and haven’t for years.  Although I always know what they are doing, I just don’t sit down and listen to it because it never really hits me emotionally.  I listen to Wayne Shorter, Jan Garbarek, Art Pepper, Cannonball, Chris Potter, Warne Marsh, Joe Henderson, Gary Bartz, Bennie Maupin, and of course Trane and Bird.  I could go on and on…

You were a founding member of Lost Tribe and Lan Xang—are those bands still active?

No.  Lost Tribe was together for ten years and broke up five or six years ago.  Great band.  Lan Xang never broke up; we all just got too busy.  I think we will do that again.  That was a real special group; really heavy, I thought.

There is a core group of musicians that you mainly work with—please comment.

I work with musicians that I feel are really there to play with all of their heart and soul, and do it with an enthusiasm and love that is apparent—people that really listen and are not concerned with individual musical appearance.  Also, those that have a degree of ability on their instruments.

I have one group—Dan Weiss on drums, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Craig Taborn on piano—that works all of the time and tours, etc.  Jacob Sacks played piano in the group until recently, as he has gone on to putting his own group together now.  It’s an incredible group.

The other group I have, the “Welcome to Life” group—Brian Blade on drums, Scott Colley on bass, Adam Rogers on guitar, Craig Taborn on piano, and Chris Potter on tenor—works less because of obvious availability problems, but comes together like an old glove when we do play.  They are both bands of great friends—they are my close friends as well as my groups, so it always feels right to me on every level.

I also must mention my continuing collaborations with my great friend Edward Simon, who lives in Florida so we don’t get to play quite as much as we would like, but we somehow find time to do it; more than I would think considering the geographic difference.  And we record steadily—he is one of the great musicians.  There are others that I regard as highly that I have recorded and played with often, but not in a regular situation, like Wayne Krantz, Jim Black, Uri Caine, Mark Turner, and Donny McCaslin—who I absolutely love playing with and is one of the most underrated musicians, I think.  And many others whom you can hear on my records; if they are on the records, then I regard them as highly as anyone.

With the demise of the Knitting Factory (jazz-wise) and the decline in jazz scheduling elsewhere, is the moniker “downtown” still relevant?

Not really.  I guess it was at one time—I mean, we all cut our teeth at the Knit in my crew but many of us never physically lived downtown.  I never have.  Bobby Previte lives more uptown than me.  I never quite got the “downtown” moniker, but I guess it makes sense because we all played at the Knit, which was… downtown.

What is the status of your self-produced label, Mythology Records?  Have you had a measure of artistic and financial success?

It’s still going and going stronger than ever, actually.  Artistic success, definitely; financial success, definitely not!  But it’s not bad and getting better every day.  Now with the downloads coming, it’ll be a lot more active.  The newest, Welcome to Life, is on Mythology and there are a couple of other things in the works.

What was it like working with Gil Evans, and then by comparison hitting with his protégé Maria Schneider?

I didn’t work with Gil Evans.  I played often in the band at Sweet Basil, but after Gil had passed.  It was the same music and same last group, though.  But it was late Gil stuff—really just a blowing group, not all the arranging stuff.

I played a few times with Maria’s band and she is a friend of mine now; we live across the street from each other.  Maria is great; great composer and arranger, a real tight band.  The difference between Maria’s group and the version of Gil’s group that I played in is real wide—they were totally different ends of the spectrum.

You have worked as a producer on a number of sessions since 1996—Jamie Baum, Lost Tribe, and Donny McCaslin—how does a producer function in jazz circles; and, by comparison to the pop world, is that role outdated?

Not at all, or at least it shouldn’t be.  I think so much of jazz is so staid now—or it is pop—that jazz producers don’t really exist anymore.  There really aren’t those guys around any more like Teo Macero or Joel Dorn, whom I love.  Joel just had a thing that was so quirky, but he knew how to bring out the “sound” of any given musician, and often with instrumentations and settings that should have been unusual.

I guess when I really think about it, jazz producers really didn’t have or need to have much of a vision; they just had to hold things together—musicians were often high or late, etc. back in the day—and make sure that the performances were good.  A guy like Dorn brought a “pop” sensibility to things.  And by that I mean he was being imaginative and extending the settings for great improvisation; a sort of George Martin for jazz.  I always found that fascinating and attractive.  Teo did that real well on Miles’ things.  I always liked Weather Report’s production and Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer—where they’re not afraid to do things that are not “normal” for jazz recordings.  There is a moment on Native Dancer where there is this backwards reverb thing that happens on Wayne’s soprano—it only happens twice in the song, I believe, but it’s an amazing effect.  And they weren’t afraid to use it in the midst of a recording that doesn’t have any other tricks on it.  It’s so subtle and brilliant.  That is only one little example in a very well produced recording; one of my all-time favorite records.

I think I bring a little of the Dorn/Macero sensibility to things that I produce, because that interests and influenced me.  Also, Brazilian music has been a huge influence on my production aesthetic.  They were highly influenced by the Beatles and George Martin’s production, plus they have this real quirky way of hearing things—especially endings to songs.  Check it out sometime: Milton’s CDs, Djavan, Ivan Lins, Hermeto... it’s way out!  I love it.

Jimi Hendrix was a pivotal inluence on your life and music...

On my music, yes.  I am not sure he influenced my life in any other way, but he sure was/is a hero musically.

Tell us about working with Aretha Franklin—did you get to interact with her at all?

There is not much to say.  I worked with her once at Carnegie Hall to a sold-out, screaming crowd.  Steve Bernstein got me on the gig.  It was an unbelievable thrill and experience.  I took a solo and it was on one of the classics.  I have forgotten which one now, but she sang and I was mesmerized and then she looked over at me and told me to solo.  I did, of course, but damn if I can remember how I played!  I remember after the concert just walking out onto 7th Avenue and feeling so excited to be in New York City and how great life can be.

In 2004 you had said that you would have a gig in Europe monthly—does Europe still make up the bulk of the band’s work?

I never said I did a gig in Europe monthly, I don’t think, but I was in Europe a lot last year, as in the years before too.  Europe is where and how we make our livings, end of story.  I wish it was different, but it’s not.

Much like fellow alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, you often allude to funk...

I grew up with funk.  The 70s were about funk; I love it and can’t ignore it.  The first groups I played in as a teenager were funk groups with musicians from the ghetto, which was miniscule in the town I grew up in, but it existed and that was my experience.  We played covers of Cameo, Parliament, Heatwave, Confunkshun, Herbie Hancock, etc.

One of the most underrated saxophone players is Maceo Parker—a genius on the horn.  George Duke is one of my biggest heroes—I still listen to and buy everything he does.  Another of the great underrated musicians.

Let’s go back to some of your dues-paying days—you used to play in the streets of New York by the Plaza Hotel?

I did.  I actually just got in a couple of hours ago from having dinner with Adam Rogers and Chris Potter, and we were talking about those days.  Hilarious, sometimes!  It was just a way to make money.  It taught me a lot because I had to learn tunes and deal with crazy people on the street; it makes you tougher.  There are many stories from those days, but just anecdotes—nothing that had much of a bearing on what I do now.

You are like the lost Beatle—you held the chair with the 29th Street Saxophone Quartet...

Yeah, I was in the original incarnation of the 29er’s when we played on the street.  But they needed a guy with a bigger “name” when they were offered a tour in Europe; and since I was the last original member, I got dropped for Bobby Watson.  No more comment on that one!

One of your side careers was being in on the ground floor of early hip-hop with the Def Jam label.  Please talk about that experience and whether or not you still find hip-hop viable.

I wrote for Def Jam briefly; I hated it, though I liked a lot of the music on the label.  Public Enemy is one of my all-time favorite groups.  Geniuses.  But the people I wrote for sucked, and if there is any area of the music business that is more corrupt than the jazz area, it’s the R&B area!

I don’t know what “hip-hop” is.  It was a label given to people like Lauryn Hill, etc., whom I can’t stand—that kind of stuff is pretentious shit.  No talent, but pretending that they are for what is “real” and then driving around in their Hummers, no awareness at all—a sham.

Now they call rap “hip-hop”, but I liked it better when it was rap!  No one has come close to Public Enemy to me, though I liked Eric B. and Rakim too.  Some of the newer stuff is OK, but most sucks.  I have liked some of MF Doom’s stuff.  I like GZA and some of RZA’s stuff, a few Talib Kweli things...

Your view of the recording future for jazz is quite controversial—what will happen to CDs in, say, two or three years?

Controversial?  Why?  First of all, this is not just about “jazz”; this is about all recorded music—films, photographs, books, and anything that can be digitally reproduced at a high quality.

We are talking about music so I’ll stick with CDs.  CDs are over.  CD stores are over.  This is not a bad thing at all.  People are downloading the music they want from the Internet.  They can listen to everything before they buy it; something you could do in Europe with CDs, but rarely in the States.  It was a crapshoot buying music by an artist you didn’t know, because you couldn’t listen to it before you bought it.  Now you can.

This is a great thing for the artists.  Artists can now start making a few dollars for the work they do.  Some artists, especially in the “Napster” early days, were freaking out about people illegally downloading music.  I guess my point to my peers was, “Who cares? Did you ever see a dime from record sales anyway?”  We weren’t making any money from record sales.  When that realization hits, you see that it makes total sense to bypass record companies and just make the records yourself and sell them on your own.  With the Internet and downloadable files being the ultimate distribution network and no middle man, everything is pure profit.

And other than the initial cost of the production, there are no costs afterwards unless, say, you want to hire a publicist.  And, there are no more CDs; everything is available through a cable, which means no need to go to a post office to send anything… less cost there too.  No need to carry—and hide!—CDs in our luggage when we go on tour just so that we can sell them on the gig.  There is even less environmental waste.

Distributors are freaking out too, but all they have to do is get into the digital download area of distribution and they will be fine.  There will always be a need to have a place—which in this day and age will be a website rather than a brick and mortar storefront—to put together a selection of titles in a specific area of music so that people can find it without having to know beforehand about a particular musician and/or his/her web address.  It can even still be a physical storefront where people can go in and listen to things and download onto their computer, iPod, whatever.

The part of the music industry that the download thing hurts is the popular music area of the business.  Because there, you hear something on the radio—let’s say U2 or 50 Cent or something—and then a minute later you can have it on your computer, for free, because people post those kinds of things online.

In a way it’s a little better to be under the radar nowadays so that your music is not so easy to find.  People still have to buy it.  But even then, let’s say people can find anything they want as a download; even then we—artists—are better off because more people will hear our music and we can use our websites or websites like Artist Share to promote and fund our music before it is made.

How will the changes in the jazz recording industry impact many of the vanity discs—in other words, self-produced efforts—by jazz artists?

I think a lot of this was answered already, but I will add that another benefit of getting rid of record companies is… I think we will—and should—get back to innovating and evolving the music because we don’t have some asshole record exec telling us we need to get a female singer and record more vocal tunes, or record that organ groove record we never wanted to make!  Fuck that.  We make our music exactly the way we want to make our music.  I always have, by the way.  I have never taken a direction from any businessperson regarding the music.  I live and die by my own musical decisions and would have it no other way.  That also ensures that you pour your heart and soul into your records under your own name.  As Sonny Criss once said, “You don’t record no bullshit under your own name.”  Of course, he made some commercial records near the end of his life and ended up killing himself, so… maybe he took that motto a little too literally!