Secret master

By JON GARELICK  |  July 27, 2010

The fresh, fleet performances of Rivers's "Fuchsia Swing Song," Monk's "Think of One," and Shorter's "Toy Tune" and "Teru" and an epic, fearless take on Coltrane's "Africa" belie any lack of preparation or commitment. And Binney's vamping "Strata," with its hooky melody, fits right in — a future standard waiting to be discovered.

This is a different world from, say, "Leaving the Sea" from 2003's South (Criss Cross), a 14:53 epic in its own right, with multiple contrasting sections and unpredictable mixes of free and written passages. Binney says that the supposed complexities of his jazz writing are deceptive. Shuffling through his music at home, he comes to "Leaving the Sea." "It's only one page — so that tells you it's not complicated right off the bat." He runs through the structure for me: A section, B section, C section, four bars each. "So, basically, it's as long as a blues," he laughs. But Binney likes to mix up his sections or, as in "Leaving the Sea," end it with the B section — something he also likes about Death Cab for Cutie's music. Or he'll mix in free sections for soloists with written chord sequences. "I take a little bit of information and twist it as many times as you can twist it, so it sounds like this long, complex composition, when in reality it's not at all. . . . We could sight-read this on a gig and play it just fine," he says of "Leaving the Sea."

For listeners, this means that his tunes are constantly unfolding with surprises, new events, even as the material feels grounded, familiar in some way that you can't quite place. For real complicated music, Binney suggests looking forward to a piece he's been writing for string orchestra, piano, and saxophone that's entirely through-composed, with no improvisation.

But still there's that pull of pop. For a time in the '80s, Binney and a partner were writing songs for Def Jam Records. "But I hated the business of that. They used to just take things and put their names on the records. I got out of that pretty quickly." These days, he's working on his own house-music project, which he'll release under a different name. In general, he says that he sits down to write with no preconceptions of an end result — "whatever comes out is just purely what I want to hear."

What he can't understand is some of the more constrained tendencies of younger players. "You go to jam sessions and they're trying to sound like the old masters. It's fantastic that they can do that, but it's like a drug. I tell students: there's no future for it, it's been done. There's not an audience for it in the first place. It's not like classical music, where you can study Bach or Beethoven all your life and at least get a gig in the symphony. There's only one Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra."

DAVID BINNEY QUARTET | Scullers, DoubleTree Guest Suites Hotel, 400 Soldiers Field Rd, Boston | August 6 at 8 + 10 pm | $22 | 617.562.4111 or

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