Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: Lifted Land - David Binney


Personnel: David Binney: alto saxophone; Craig Taborn: piano; Eivind Opsvik: bass; Tyshawn Sorey: drums.


Lifted Land begins with “Fanfare for Basu” (2:24), an upper mid-tempo tune that starts with a bright, fast line played in unison by Binney and Taborn.  Then there is a lengthy interlude with overdubbed saxes playing in counterpoint, then the original theme is repeated.  This first cut has no improvisation.

“The Road to Your House” (7:01) has a wistful, angular theme taken at mid-tempo, Binney employing a soft, buzzy tone.  Binney takes a long, deeply lyrical solo, spinning out one interesting phrase after another, gliding over the full range of the horn.  After Binney’s solo, Taborn, Opsvik, and Sorey display a hand-in-glove rapport, reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet.  Taborn’s excellent solo displays elements of Jarrett’s style as well.  This is a really great cut.

The lengthiest piece of the recording by far is “As Snow Before a Summer Sun” (18:34).  This piece is a series of improvised sections separated by a different simple melodic phrase.  After the slow, out-of tempo start, Opsvik plays a slow arco bass solo, a series of drawn-out, bent notes.  The next punctuating melodic phrase is followed by some gong-like sounds, contributing to the piece’s overall oriental, minimalist feel, as well as a sound like crinkling paper (which I assume is Sorey using brushes on drums).  After the next punctuating phrase, Binney plays a fairly free a cappella solo, with alternating fast and slow passages, occasionally bending his notes.  Taborn’s solo passage is a sequence of ominous, somewhat dissonant chord phrases.  (Up to this point, it’s almost like Binney asked his group members to explore the sonic possibilities of their instruments.)  The next solo section has Taborn and Binney delicately improvising together.  After the next, longer melodic interlude, Binney improvises at length over Taborn repeating a three-chord phrase—a virtuoso performance, fairly free but still controlled and lyrical.  Binney joins Taborn on the repeated phrase to close out the cut.

“The Blue Whale” (11:54) starts with some funky bass plucking and strumming.  Then Binney and Taborn play a theme with a slightly mysterious, Middle Eastern tinge.  Then Binney plays a visceral, kinetic, fleet solo over a simple harmonic background, firing off phrases like jabs, reminiscent of Dave Liebman’s more driving tenor sax playing.  Taborn amplifies this feeling in his solo, playing heavy, jarring phrases, eventually becoming quieter but still jarring.  Binney, Opsvik, and Taborn then provide a repetitious background while Sorey plays a fine solo of controlled mayhem.  The cut quietly winds down, some calm after the storm.  This cut has the intensity and rawness of a live performance.

Most of “Curious About Texas” (5:17) is an exercise in loose group improvisation.  The cut starts with just the suggestion of a theme, and then the quartet improvises quietly and tentatively.  Then Binney plays a wild solo, with raucous accompaniment from the rhythm section.  There is another section of quiet group interplay, and the cut finishes with an energetic theme, with stops and starts, Binney and Opsvik playing in unison, and finally an abrupt ending. 

“Lifted Land” (6:23) has Binney and Taborn playing a mid-tempo, stately theme of insistent quarter notes in an elusive meter with light, almost march-like accompaniment.  Taborn plays an elegant but robust solo.  Then Binney repeats part of the theme while Sorey deftly improvises.  The cut ends with Binney and Taborn playing a clever, complex line.

“Losing the Central Valley” (3:26) is a brief, meditative piece with a lot of open spaces between brief phrases played by the group.  There’s no clear soloing in this one.

The recording closes with “Red Cloud” (3:31), another meditative piece, bordering on gloominess, which features Taborn all alone playing a series of insistent chords.  It appears to be entirely composed. 

Binney is one of those jazz musicians who are just as strong in their composing and group-leading as they are in their playing.  (This was noted recently about Marius Neset as well.)  On Lifted Land, Binney appears to have chosen to focus on composing and group conception more than improvising; he doesn’t solo on half of the cuts, though whenever he solos, he is outstanding.  Because of this, those who are particularly interested in saxophone improvising might feel a bit shortchanged with this recording.  But all of the cuts are serious and interesting, though somewhat somber, and the musicians are all firmly on the same page.  Some might find Binney’s approach here a nice change from the usual theme, solos, theme jazz format.  Perhaps that is what Binney was shooting for.  Personally, I would have preferred more cuts like “The Road to Your House,” but that might simply indicate my more conventional listening tastes.  I don’t think Lifted Land is a good introduction to Binney’s work, but anyone who has enjoyed his work previously will probably not want to miss this one.

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