An Interview with Dave Binney
An Interview with
by Fred Jung
With so many records being released each year, a small, indie jazz label’s release is not even going to make a ripple. So it’s a noble, often unrewarding task to operate one. I was curious as to why a person would venture into such an uphill battle, and so I asked Dave Binney, a multi-reed virtuoso, who has recently started up Mythology Records (mythologyrecords.com). And he spoke quite candidly about his label, his record, “Free to Dream,” and the state of the music today, all unedited and in his own words.
FJ: Where did it all start?
DB: I grew up in California, in Southern California and played in Ventura and Santa Barbara. When I graduated high school I moved to New York and I’ve been here ever since. I guess I’ve just been pursuing playing interesting music since I’ve been here, either people that I love to play with or music that I love, also and, or my own. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing. I recently started my own little company to promote music that I like and my own music also.
FJ: Let’s be realistic, Southern California is not really conducive to jazz, how was it you were able to push toward this music?
DB: The only thing that I can ever come up with is that my parents were big jazz fans. They didn’t play but I heard it all of my life. I remember hearing Coltrane and Miles and everybody, including some other people that I loved like Hendrix and all those people that weren’t really jazz musicians. I was exposed to good music all the time and I think it just kind of sunk in and then I somehow got involved in it. What few people were playing it around Ventura and Santa Barbara, I sort of hooked up with and then realized that as soon as I could I needed to get out of there because the scene wasn’t really happening for what I wanted to do, but it was here in New York.
FJ: Must have been rough, moving to New York at such a young age.
<> It definitely was. I think that I had, I had been here as a kid, just to see it, so I knew, sort of, what it was like, I hadn’t spent more than a week here, but my father grew up in the Bronx so I heard about it all my and I had an idea of some things. I came here by myself and I didn’t know one person, so it was definitely a hard time the first couple of years. I was really homesick for a lot of things, and just learning how to deal with people here was different. Everybody on the street where I grew up said “hi” when you walked past them, if you knew them or not. Here, people, sort of, run the other way, or they did. I just learned how to deal with that. It was definitely shellshock, but I like the fact that I’ve had two lives in a way at two opposite ends of the country and two different lifestyles. I think it breeds something that is important in creating music, at least for myself. Knowing two sides of something.
FJ: Does that duality help in your understanding of the continuum?
DB: I don’t know if it’s better, but for me it works because I think that some of my inspiration is still in what I grew up with. It provides inspiration for writing and all of that so I think that it definitely plays a part in what I do still. I know, my friends who were born and raised here, they’re great and creative in their own way but there’s something that they don’t have because they lack the experience of growing up in a different place. I think that I notice in the musicians that are here from California, and there is a hell of a lot of them, they have a little extra thing that I enjoy, that I like, and I understand. I recognize.
FJ: Talk about your studies with Phil Woods and Dave Liebman.
DB: Well, surprisingly enough, I really, I only took a few lessons from Dave Liebman when I first moved here and I only took, I believe it was only one lesson with Phil Woods, but he gave me so much stuff on one sheet of paper and than he said, “If you learn this, you don’t really have to come back. Just learn this and you’ll be fine.” And it was true. He showed me, Phil Woods especially, showed me technically some things that I needed to know, some harmonic things and it was a lot of work. I could, with that one sheet of paper, work on stuff for a year. I really gained a lot, so I didn’t really have to go back. I feel like I studied with him, or at least got more out of one lesson with him than I could have gotten with probably a lot of people in years of study. Liebman was more, just a conceptualist. He talks more about the reasons we play music and everything, the technical aspect of it, which is also something that I realize when I teach I do that. Everybody gets technical information when they study and they rarely get what music should be, the aesthetic of playing music. So I try to provide that when I teach. That’s what Liebman provided for me. So really, I didn’t study for a long time, but I got a lot out of both of them, studying with both of them.
FJ: Continuing with Liebman’s lesson, what is the reason that you play the music?
DB: Well, I don’t know if I can narrow it down that much, but I don’t know if I know. I just know that I really enjoy it. I think the reason that I do certain things within music is clear to me. There’s a reason that I stay clear of doing something that is specifically designed to sell or that sort of thing. I have to be honest about the way I feel about music. Not everybody’s like that and I understand that that’s not, a lot of people are prone to be true to themselves in a way and a lot of other people just play music to make money. It’s just a job for them and they don’t have that deep appreciation for it that a lot of people do, but for me it’s just a passion that I wan to, what I do I want to keep pure in it’s spirit and in it’s purpose. I just try and instill that into students a little bit. If they don’t have that, sometimes it doesn’t last that long for me, because I lose interest in teaching if somebody doesn’t really have that interest in playing music. For me, it’s not about making money or being commercial in any way. I would like to, but I would like to do that doing what I do.
FJ: Does that purity exist anymore in jazz?
DB: The business side of it, I guess it’s sort of an oxymoron. The thing that’s happened in music and this is very clear to me is that there was a time when musicians made the decisions about what happens in music, especially with their music and that day is still there, but it’s not the people that are being recorded for the most part. Now, the business decides what music people are going to play, and that manifests itself by either literally, they’re being told to play a certain kind of thing or they’re influenced to do a certain thing because they want to get a record deal and not starve. Even if they’re not being told, they’re doing something to try to get something sold to Verve or whoever is setting the standard at the time. There’s plenty of people though, at least here that are playing creative music and playing for the love of music. I’m very optimistic. I think it’s sort of winning out anyway. A lot of the people who are gaining in the business are being pretty pure. The big name people that you see on these labels, a lot of the younger guys that are signed really aren’t doing anything and they’re really just about business, but they won’t be around very long. I guess that’s my optimism. I see the people that are lasting a little bit are people that are actually doing something interesting.
FJ: You have a unique perspective on the process because you own and operate a label, you’re a musician, a composer, and a producer, who are some of the artists that are making waves but are not getting their share of the pie?
DB: A lot of the people that I personally know and play with all the time. Scott Colley, I think he’s doing his fourth CD in the last year. He’s doing that in the next couple of weeks. I’m talking mostly players now, because a lot of people aren’t making their own records yet, but Kenny Wollesen, who I play with a lot and Jeff Hirshfield, a lot of people that I play with. There is a lot more that I could say, a lot of other people that are doing it to that I just see, that I don’t even really know. I sat in the other night with Greg Osby down at the Knitting Factory and I think Osby is doing what he really wants to do, and is doing it also on Blue Note, which is sort of unusual. He’s really just playing what he likes to play and that’s really nice to hear. There are plenty of people who are being honest with music.
FJ: How did Mythology Records come about?
DB: I had a record that was recorded for another label. They decided not to release it because they decided not to put out anymore jazz and it just so happened that my record was just about to be released. Then they held it for a long time and I just finally got it back from them and decided that it was an opportunity to start a label. I had this CD and I wanted it to come out. I tried to sell it to some people, you know, people were, “Oh, it’s a great record.” But they didn’t want to put it out. That’s what my first intention was, to try and sell it to, the one person that did want to put it out, eventually went out of business. They didn’t put it out anyway, but most people say, “It’s a great record, but we don’t know what to do with it.” So I figured, it was frustrating. Everybody loves this record, that I played on it. I played it for people that I know. I said, “I’ve got to put it out there myself.” That instigated the whole thing and then we did this “Lan Xang” record. Ed Simon, who is one of my favorite musicians, there’s a guy who is doing what he wants to do on his own. He’s played with Terence Blanchard, but on his own, he’s really doing his own thing. Those are the three records I have so far.
FJ: Has distribution been tough for you?
DB: That’s the hardest thing. Everything else seemed pretty easy because the records were good and so I’ve gotten a lot of press over them, and all good press. That wasn’t really hard. It seems like radio stations are pretty open, at least college radio, and they are pretty open to playing stuff, but the distribution is a whole other thing. Those people really, it’s hard, so I just have minor distribution here. I just have Cadence North Country and I have distribution in Canada. Now I’m just working on Europe, which is a couple things that seem like they may go. It’s really a hard thing to get them into the stores I have to say. I’m trying to get better distribution in the States. Right now, I’m also concentrating on the internet and just even having them on Amazon.com on the internet so that people can get them from anywhere. It’s really the best way to do it right now.
FJ: How have you taken advantage of the internet?
DB: It definitely makes it easier to get known, at least to people that own computers and they’re on the internet, which this country is loaded with them. The rest of the world is catching up. In Europe, where a lot of my records would do really well is still, most of the people don’t have computers, so it’s a little bit harder. It’s definitely helped. It’s hard to get people to order from the internet, I’ve realized. It’s still much better to sell out of the store. I think that’s all changing fast, rapidly and it’s going to even be a faster change in the next coming years because I think it’s an obvious thing. Also, they sell the things cheaper on the internet. Like Amazon.com sells my record for $ 12.98 and in Tower it’s probably sixteen bucks. I think it’s the wave of the future, but right now, it’s sort of hard to sell on there too. I’d really like to get the records into a lot more stores. But there are things in the works that maybe that will be the case soon.
FJ: Let’s talk about “Lan Xang” on Mythology.
DB: Kenny Wollesen is the drummer in that band now. That’s a great band. I really love playing with that band. We came together in Scott Colley’s apartment really. He lived, at that time, right across the street from me and he had a place to play and we would just play every week, maybe sometimes twice a week and we just wrote a lot of music and just played and it sort of became this thing. We decided to do a record on our own and so we just went into the studio and recorded it and then when I started this label, we put it out on the label. Actually, it was the first release on the label. Since then, Jeff has, he left the band for a few different reasons, but everything is totally cool. I played with Jeff last night in my band. Kenny Wollesen is now the drummer in that band. We were out in California last year. It was really great to play in Los Angeles and have a lot of people there, people that really love the music because that’s really open music. Live it’s also a lot different than on the CD, not a lot different, but it’s very open and we get into a lot of stuff spontaneously. It was very well received. It was a good concert. That’s a really fun band. I like that band. I think that band will do well. We’re doing another record in August for another label, Naxos. They get those things out there. Donny McCaslin had a record for them and we just hooked up. We’re going to do that in August, so we’re doing a new record too.
FJ: Does the music that you play typecast you from certain clubs?
DB: If it does, I’m really not aware of it. I haven’t even approached those bigger clubs or anything at this point because I just assumed it’s not going to happen. I assume that mainly because of popularity, not because of the music. If anything is popular it could play anywhere. Bill Frisell is at the Village Vanguard all week, and for years has been playing there, but at one time seeing him at the Knitting Factory when he wasn’t doing much, thinking that he would ever be leading his own band at the Village Vanguard was, I don’t think anybody thought that would be possible, yet now he is. I think it’s just about becoming popular and having clubs want you in there. I don’t know if it’s about categories, which I don’t like either. I noticed categories with being more of a problem with distribution and with record labels than I do with venues to play at. My music, I do a lot of different things and live, I think it’s a lot different than it is on the records. The records at least are pretty accessible, because I think really melodically a lot of the time. I don’t know how avant-garde they would even be considered.
If anything, I’ve noticed a rejection from people that are considered avant-garde of my CD, because it’s more melodic. I don’t think I could play some festivals in Europe where they have featured John Zorn or all those people, if I gave them my CD. They would hear it as being too melodic. Even if they saw me live, I might completely freak out. I play hard a lot of times live. I concentrate, at least on my last couple of records more on the writing aspect of it. That’s important to me. I want people to listen to the record and to make them feel something also. I think it’s a different experience than seeing music live.
FJ: Capturing the energy of a live setting is difficult to translate on record.
DB: I think the live setting, first of all, you’re probably more relaxed because it’s just a gig, whereas in the studio you’re all ready set up to be, not nervous, but the environment is so that there’s nobody watching you and you’re not playing for anybody. You’re worried about a lot of other things, the sound, what’s being recorded, there’s a lot of other things going on in your head that probably get in the way of being able to completely stretch out like you do live, but with that being said, I don’t see that, that can’t be done. I feel like I’ve played well on records where I’ve just been able to blow more. Recording live records is an important thing for jazz. The new Greg Osby record (“Banned in New York”) was recorded at Sweet Basil, where they just did it on a little shitty recorder. they really captured some amazing playing because I don’t think Osby even told the band that he was recording anything.
DB: So it comes across to me. I hear that record and I think, “Wow, that’s one of the few records that I’ve heard in a long time that really has that spirit of older jazz, while at the same time still being very fresh. In New York, I hear gigs like that all the time. I played last night with my band. It was completely, it was great. We just got into so much stuff. Every time, and this happens at least once a week, I think, “God, I wish I had that on tape.” There’s some many great things happening, but most of the time it’s not recorded.
DB: Well, definitely all the usual suspects, especially Coltrane. I would say Wayne Shorter was probably my favorite all around guy as far as playing and writing. He encompasses all of that as good as anyone has ever done it. Cannonball Adderley and I have some favorites that are kind of unusual for a lot of people. I went to this Brian Blade gig and Christian McBride was sitting at the piano playing these tunes on an electric piano after the gig, just by himself. I was talking to somebody and I just kept hearing these tunes and I said, “Wow, this is all the stuff that I really loved, that I didn’t think anyone knew about.” So I went over and talked to him, and I had actually never even met him before, but we started talking and I realized he was the only guy that I had ever met that actually had some of the same favorites. Those would be a lot of obscure Bobby Hutcherson stuff. Bobby Hutcherson, I think is just an absolute genius and he made a lot of great records, some that aren’t even in print now and I don’t know if Blue Note has any intention of putting them out again. I also happen to like Bennie Maupin’s solo records a lot. I think he did, his first thing on ECM (“The Jewel in the Lotus”), I though was really interesting and I think I still think of that sound sometimes on my own thing. They used a lot of woodwinds and all that. Herbie Hancock from the ’70s, a lot of stuff from the ’70s, that’s always been put down, like Joe Henderson from the ’70s on Milestone. I think that was, for me, his best period and yet a lot of people think those were his worst records.
FJ: Then they didn’t get a chance to hear his “Porgy and Bess” on Verve.
DB: (Laughing) Yes, exactly. Maybe because he used some electronics or whatever, but I think they were at the height of his playing and I think they’re really great records. I was talking to Christian McBride, who knew all these tunes and could play them on the piano and he knew those records inside out, could even play the solos from anything I was mentioning and I was just thrilled that somebody knew that. I would say those were some of the people that I really enjoyed that are sort of unusual, Bobby Hutcherson, Bennie Maupin, Freddie Hubbard’s ’70s stuff.
FJ: Does that perception come from the fact that the traditionalists refuse to recognize the electronic material with any significance?
DB: Yes, I think with those records especially, those records in the ’70s, that’s almost completely the reason that people think that. There’s some electronics on it. I just go this record that I’ve been looking for, for years, this Joe Henderson record. Well, there’s one they released called “Canyon Lady,” that I’ve really always loved and they finally released that. Then there’s this other one called “Black Miracle” that they released on the box set, but I didn’t have the box set, and it’s like a hundred and sixty dollars, but Chris Potter had it and so I taped that CD from him. I really like it, some of the tune on it, but it has George Duke all over it, who is another guy who I’ve always really, really loved. I know he’s done a lot of stuff in the last few years that isn’t so great. It’s middle of the road, whatever they call it, that easy listening jazz. He’s really a talented guy and he did a lot of great stuff in the ’70s and he plays on that Joe Henderson thing and he plays synthesizer and electric piano. He plays great.
He plays it like, he makes music with it, real music with synth solos, which is very unusual in a way, but I think that’s why the records were panned, and yet it’s a great record. It has a lot of nice tunes on it and some great playing by Joe. Conceptually, I liked it. I liked it. They were sort of strong. They influenced me a lot as a kid. I’ve always had that sound in my head.
FJ: Describe Dave Binney?
DB: I would hope that somebody else might describe me as, like I said, as being honest about what I’m doing. When somebody hears my music or my playing, to know that I mean it and that it’s pure. I’m trying to be honest. >