David Binney Interview, NYC

By Filipe Freitas

David Binney at 55 Bar, 2015  ©Clara Pereira

David Binney at 55 Bar, 2015  ©Clara Pereira


Name: David Binney
Instrument: saxophone
Style: postbop, contemporary jazz
Album Highlights: Free To Dream (Mythology, 1998); Graylen Epicenter (Mythology, 2011); The Time Verses (Criss Cross, 2017).





The Time Verses describes a diurnal cycle. What were your motivations/inspirations for doing it?
It really wasn't about anything. I never compose music based on anything but what sounds good to me. I don't like when, like in the case of these grants people get, one is asked to explain their music and what it represents....  It's not political, it's not about issues, it's not about anything.  It's music. 
It's supposed to be listened to. I wish people would stop needing some other reason for why music exists. It's music. That's what makes it great. 
When people try or need some other narrative, it's weakness on their part. It's the inability to understand music and hear it on a deep level. 
So not to put down your question - it's a valid and normal question, but it hits a nerve with me and gives me an opportunity to actually say something that needs to be said. 
So I only made it seem like a suite and relate by the titles. The music was written outside of that. It's just a way to package it for people who need more than the actual music, to like it. 

All your fans know about your long-time association with the 55 Bar. In "Fifty Five", I spotted glimpses of Wayne Shorter and Sam Rivers and a deliberated swinging pulse that’s not so common in your arrangements. 
Yeah, it's a swing tune. And we do a lot of that at the 55. We always have. So I figured it was time for me to put a tribute to that place and show how important it is. Even for music in NYC. 
Swing is pretty common in my music. If you go through my records you'll see there is a lot of swing. 

Your sound and compositional style are very identifiable in this recording and still, it sounds so distinctive and fresh. What was the special secret for that?
I pay attention to those things. I have always wanted to sound unique. I'm not one to follow the pack. I’m always searching and stretching. I understand how to write and play interesting music. It's what I do and what I love. It's my passion. And it comes naturally to me. Plus, I'm obsessed with it. I listen to everything and often. I know what's happening in almost all music areas. So there's a lot to draw from. 
For how long do you play with the members of this quartet and what are their main features that most suits your musical creations?
I've played with Dan Weiss for about 17 years I think, maybe longer. Jacob Sacks for as long, although Matt Mitchell is in the group now. Eivind Opsvik I also have a long history with. They’re all very open and they are like me in their search. And they go for things. So the music is always different and expanding. I like to be in that environment. 
They also all have very unique sounds. And they think compositionally. I like that. 
Do you have everything planned and structured in advance before going to the studio or are you open to spontaneous creativity on the spot?
I have the framework. And then that is left open to whatever happens. The writing part of my music is usually pretty strictly adhered to and then everyone is free to do whatever they want during improvisations. I like that balance. 
"Seen" is a song that easily conquers the ear due to its deeply soulful approach. What is this song about and how did this collaboration with Jen Shyu happen?
It's a very old song of mine. We have been playing it for years but we just ever got around to recording it. 
Jen heard it years ago and loved it. She always wanted to write lyrics to it. So she did and we recorded it. I love the way she sings it and it's just one of those magical collaborations. She's great. 

Your solos are both striking and emotional. If in a particular circumstance you had to choose between technique and emotion, what would you choose to drop first?
Well, technique. It's not about technique. It's just that the more technique I possess, the more possibilities there are. I have always liked the balance between technique and emotion. I like Salvador Dali for instance, or Stravinsky, Bird, Coltrane, Beatles… well just about everyone that does something great. They usually have some high degree of both. 
What do you picture in your mind while you’re improvising? 
Sound. Shape. Interaction. The conversation. The moment. That's really all I think about. 
Are you constantly in a creative process or do you feel you have to stop for a while in order to find new inspirations?
I'm constantly thinking about creating. I find inspiration along the way. I really don't stop. 
Can you briefly describe the hardest moment of your career?
This interview. Hahaha, no, I’m kidding. I like this interview! 
The hardest thing for me, to be honest, is just that I've been such a part of the scene and an inspiration to so many and been on the forefront with composition and playing, and it's hard for me to even get gigs or work sometimes. And yet, I see many people whose lives I influenced, or in many cases even changed, and they are out there doing well while I mostly struggle along. I know the deal. It's that way for a lot of people who innovate in some way, and usually, it comes back to them in later years, but it can be frustrating. 
I mean, I single-handedly put together and created the band that David Bowie used for Blackstar, a huge and important record. That was a group I was going to use on my record at the time, but I gave it up to Donny [McCaslin] because I was producing his record and wanted to get more production work. I knew that it would fit his record and my vision perfectly. And yet, the press completely buried me in that discussion. Donny didn't even want to do electric music. It was my suggestion. I picked the musicians and sculpted the sound, working my ass off on those records. David Bowie heard it and flipped out. He took it and used it for his record and I got completely cut out of the story. How does that happen? I should be getting all kinds of producing work right now. 
I understand production as well as anyone. It's so obvious to me when I hear music, any kind of music, to be able to tell what it needs to make it better. The lives of the guys in the band are changed because what I did. And I'm pretty much in the same place. That's difficult. But again, probably this is not unusual in an artist’s story.  
The other thing that is a bit of a difficult thing is how influential I've been not only as a player but also as a composer. I've never once showed up in any poll as a composer and yet half the things I hear out there from a certain generation of people sounds liked stuff I did years ago. And they know it, and some even admit it. But the outside world and the music business, don't acknowledge it - sometimes a difficult pill to swallow. 
I'm also a great teacher and a very strong influential motivational person for young musicians and people in general and yet have never been offered a teaching position or anything that much lesser musicians have been given. 
The world is so based on perception and selling and bullshit that the truth gets buried. And on purpose! People protect their positions in all aspects of life so hard. I've always been way more giving, but with that can come frustration when you see that very few people are the same way. 
Haha that wasn't "brief", I guess!

If not a musician, what would you have been?
Probably a writer. 
You’re also a very in-demand producer. Besides Donny McCaslin, you've recently worked with Quinsin Nachoff whose album was released on your label, Mythology.
How was the experience and how difficult is managing a record label today?

Well, I talked a lot about the Donny recordings above. 
I didn't produce Quinsin's record but put it out in my label, which these days just consists of letting someone use the Label logo and reputation. I did nothing else but play in the record. I did however produce and release Philippe Côté's fine recording Lungta. If you haven't heard that, check it out. I'm very proud of that one. Both the production and the way I played on it. 

Can you point 2 musicians you have collaborated with and marked you the most, and 2 more you’ve never collaborated but you would like to.
Well, I'd say Dan Weiss and maybe Brian Blade as far as people that have shaped my sound and executed my vision in a way that I could not have come up with on my own. 
I've never collaborated on a project with Kurt Rosenwinkel and that seems like a natural to me. We're talking now about something.  And maybe Manfred Eicher.  I'd like to record a record for ECM. I mean my music is a natural fit there. I know more about that label than pretty much anyone. It was an important part of my upbringing and so many of those records influenced my music and the way I hear things. It would just be a satisfying thing, to do a record for them. 
Are you currently working on new projects or have any new ideas in mind?
Yeah, as I said, I have in mind something with Kurt [Rosenwinkel]. With Louis Cole, a young Brazilian musician who is in Kurt’s Caipi band named Pedro Martins, and I don't know who the bass player would be… but it would be cool to have M'shell Ndegeocello and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet. Kind of a modern funk band with horns, two guitars, vocals, and crazy solos. Just an idea at this point, but I've already talked to Kurt, Louis, and Pedro about it, and everyone is in so far.