Jazz in the Age of the iPod

Alto saxophonist–composer David Binney was in the back of a van on the way to a gig in Italy two

Alto saxophonist–composer David Binney was in the back of a van on the way to a gig in Italy two years ago when he had an epiphany listening to his iPod. He dutifully recorded the moment on the Internet.

“I realize that so many of the records I love are from the Seventies,” Mr. Binney wrote in a post he dashed off for his Web site, davidbinney.com. “This because I was a kid growing up then and this was the music that made me want to play music. But it’s not only that, and I don’t really think this is a bias as I have had major discussions about that but … I think the Seventies were the greatest period of creativity in the arts and especially the arts in the U.S.”

He listed 92 albums from the decade that had “an impact” on him. Mr. Binney included predictable gems by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. But scattered among them were surprises like Joni Mitchell’s Hejira and Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates. “THIS JUST A PARTIAL LIST,” Mr. Binney added. “Really just off the top of my head. There are SOOO many more albums I could include if I was home and could look at my collection.”

Mr. Binney’s affection for the decade and its more lyrical pop stylists helps explain what sets him apart from his peers. Like many other jazz musicians who are his age or younger, the saxophonist, who recently turned 48, has an encyclopedic iPod playlist.

But Mr. Binney’s influences are too subtle, too serious, to result in predictable “unpredictable” Björk covers designed to attract applause for witty eclecticism. The Wayne Shorter and the Joni Mitchell and everything else become more than the sum of their parts—they become, distinctly, the work of David Binney. It would be difficult to point to references to Hejira or Pirates in Mr. Binney’s compositions. But you can hear echoes of Ms. Mitchell’s confessions and Ms. Jones’ beatnik tales. There is a haunting, melodic quality in the saxophonist’s songs that isn’t heard enough in jazz.

Mr. Binney doesn’t stop there. He fills his tunes with simple repeated lines that Brill Building denizens would adore. “I’ve always loved really strong hooks,” he told me. “The music I really remember in my life has hooks even if it’s not considered a hook.”

He sang the famous four-note line from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”

“That’s a huge simple hook,” he says.

True enough. But have you ever heard Cecil Taylor use that word? Mr. Binney is here committing a major diction error in the language of jazz-talk.

There is nothing smooth about his jazz. Mr. Binney has discovered one of the great truths of jazz: If once you have seduced your audience, you can get away with anything. Louis Armstrong knew this. So did Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.

“It’s amazing what you can do after you give people a strong melody,” Mr. Binney said with a laugh. “You can freak out and go crazy. But if you start with the freakout, sometimes you will lose them. I think about that a lot. I want people to like my music. I like it better that way, too.” 

Jazz would have a vast listenership today if more people thought about this as much as he.


MR. BINNEY BRINGS an all-star quartet featuring drummer Brian Blade, pianist Craig Taborn and the Norwegian bassist Eivind Opsvik to Rubin Museum of Art at 150 West 17th Street on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. They will play songs from his splendid new CD, Third Occasion, which features a four-piece brass section. The concert is part of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem’s fine series of Friday night shows at the Rubin dubbed “Harlem in the Himalayas.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Mr. Binney said as he demolished a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich at a diner near his apartment recently. “I was thinking about doing it with the brass like on this new record. Blade suggested it. But I don’t know if I can get that together economically. But I may do it that way. It would be cool, I think.”

He is a bantamweight guy with thinning black hair. He grew up in Southern California and was kicked out of his high-school marching band. He came to New York when he was 19, determined to have a career as a jazz musician. He admits he was shy. That will always be a drawback in New York. Mr. Binney would forget tunes on stage. He didn’t sign big-label deals like so many of his friends in the days when the major labels still cared about jazz.

But Mr. Binney says this only made him fight harder. He still doesn’t feel like he has gotten the attention he deserves from the media, particularly the critics at The New York Times. In 2006, a Down Beat critic gave Out of Airplanes, one of his finest albums, a tepid three and a half stars, and sniffed that Mr. Binney “has a higher profile in Europe than in the United States,” implying that Mr. Binney was too esoteric for his countrymen.

But Mr. Binney’s hardheadedness has paid off. After his Rubin Museum date, Mr. Binney is headed off with his quartet for another tour of the United States and Canada. Apparently, Americans like his music after all.

We hope Mr. Binney will arrive at the Rubin with a horn section. If not, he can carry the show. He is an ecstatic alto saxophonist whose solos often end in euphoric upper-register cries. He can also whisper the gauziest ballad like Paul Desmond and Johnny Hodges, two of his biggest influences as a player.

“The more I listen to them, the more I realize how heavy they are,” he said.

But Mr. Binney is too much of an auteur to be just another gun-slinging reed player. He doesn’t write tunes that are easily forgotten once the solos begin. He crafts musical narratives in which the soloists are characters in a tightly written plot who must each advance the action.

This is where his talents as a bandleader are evident. Mr. Binney casts some of the finest musicians on the scene to be his stars. They also fill their iPods with the same music.

Mr. Binney says Mr. Taborn, an unsung hero, can literally turn anything into a hook.

“He understands that even if the music is free, grabbing something and repeating it over and over works,” the composer said. “There are a lot of jazz musicians who don’t get that. I remember this one gig we did in Madrid. A waiter dropped knives or something. Craig started doing this delicate thing where he imitated the sounds.”

Mr. Opsvik has a jazz group, Overseas, and an ambient indie rock group, Opsvik & Jennings. Mr. Blade has played with both Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell. He recently recorded a surprisingly effective record as a singer-songwriter for Verve.

Mr. Binney says his next record might as well be a classical one.

“There is no improvisation,” he says. “It’s just a string orchestra and sax. There’s a conductor and the whole bit. But there will be a lot of melodies.”

No doubt. In July, Mr. Binney posted a random iPod shuffle list on his Web site that includes music composed by Ned Rorem and Benjamin Britten. He’s also been listening to Death Cab for Cutie.


Jazz in the Age of the iPod