Interview with David Bindman about
Brooklyn Sax Quartet: Far
Side of Here (OmniTone 12206)
by Frank Tafuri
Tafuri: I'm curious about the history
of the BSQ. How did it come about, and what was the impetus behind
Bindman: It came together informally. Fred
[Ho] and I are members of the Park Slope Food Co-op. He had this
piece called "Beyond Columbus and Capitalism," which he had
been commission to write for [the] ROVA [Saxophone Quartet]. I
guess they had performed it and recorded it, but he wanted to do it as
part of some benefit concerts. (He had written it as part of the
500th anniversary of Columbus' coming to the Americas.) So, he brought
us together for a couple different concerts.
Tafuri: Fred called just you? Or
he called Sam [Furnace], too?
Bindman: No. Actually, the
first time we did it, it was Allan Chase. It was different personnel.
We didn't have any idea of forming a sax quartet; we were just playing
that piece. And then, I liked it so much, I decided I'd like to
write for the quartet. So, we did these concerts at the Center
for Ethical Culture here in Brooklyn —twice, I think —as
benefit for the Park Slope Food Co-op.
Tafuri: And who was in the quartet
at that time?
Bindman: First, Allan Chase did it,
then Alan Wong, then Sam. Also, Rob Brown did one of the concerts. Chris
Jonas. See, Sam and I and Fred were working in Fred's ensemble.
Tafuri: The Afro-Asian Music Ensemble.
Bindman: Exactly. So, the BSQ
was sort of an out-growth of that, because Fred's writing is all for
horns. I mean, it's not just for horns, but that three-horn
sound is so central to his writing. And I just loved the idea,
because I'd been working with trios or quartets ... or other ensembles,
but not with the possibilities of all the harmony a sax quartet provides. As
opposed to playing "head tunes" or more abstract stuff, suddenly
it's all about harmony and layers, and creating all of that —including
the rhythmic effects —with just the saxophones. But, getting
back to who it was, it was sort of natural that it would include
me, Fred, and Sam. We had all been working in Fred's group, and
we each had sounds that, if you hear the three of us, are totally different,
but yet they fit together.
So, Chris had done one of the benefit concerts, and Rob Brown had recommended
Chris, so Chris and Rob were doing it. When we actually formed
the group with Sam included, Chris —being a sopranist and therefore
able to carry that upper end —switch to soprano sax.
Tafuri: Is this traditional instrumentation
for a saxophone quartet?
Bindman: I think it's pretty traditional. I
suppose there are other ways of doing it but, yeah, it's pretty basic:
baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano.
Tafuri: There you go: SATB!
Bindman: In the very first piece
["Beyond Columbus and Capitalism"], I doubled on soprano. It
was written for the tenor player to double on soprano. But eventually,
I decided not to do that even on that piece, because it didn't really
make sense when we were traveling; those few little parts could be played
on tenor. Now, I think Fred and I do pretty much half-and-half
of the writing. I think on the last CD [The Way of the Saxophone (Innova)],
I did more of the writing, but now it's about equal.
Tafuri: Basically, the Quartet was
something that took on a life of its own.
Bindman: Exactly. We didn't
sit down and say, "Let's form a sax quartet."
Tafuri: But you went on to release
the first recording, and you did some tours. What was the response
Bindman: The reaction has always
been "joyous." I think the music comes through well when you're
hearing it on recording, but I think it really comes through
well when you're hearing it live and in person, because it's so physical. There's
this sort of meeting between traditional, melodic, very rhythmic playing
and more adventurous, avant garde —whatever you want to
call it —playing. Sometimes they're indistinguishable; they
meld together as one, which is how I see our music. I mean, I don't
see them as separate musics. I know a lot of people do,
but I don't see it that way, I guess, because I had so much of an "immersion" in
both at an early age.
Tafuri: How were you immersed in
both at an early age?
Bindman: I met [trumpeter, composer,
musical innovator/zealot] Bill Dixon when I was in high school. I
was living in Bennington, Vermont, and my friend Ben Whitman (who's a
drummer and lives here now) and I and the piano player Jim Sugarman had
a group. We were playing Miles Davis tunes and actually writing
a lot of our own stuff.
Tafuri: More "straight-ahead" stuff.
Bindman: More straight-ahead, yeah. First
we had the "funk" band, then we decided to have a "more
straight-ahead." Ben lived on the Bennington College campus; his
parents were both teachers there, and they knew Bill well. So,
Bill decided to come to a rehearsal.
Tafuri: Oh, that must have been interesting!
Bindman: He came to the rehearsal
with these very dark "shades" and announced that "I want
to you come to my ensemble class."
Tafuri: Were you guys students there?
Bindman: We were high school students.
Tafuri: And he's talking about having
you come to the class at the college.
Bindman: So, we went in, and we played
for the ensemble class ... and then he involved us. Then, Ben and
I joined this ensemble led by a trumpeter named Arthur Brooks, who was
teaching up there. Did you ever meet Arthur?
Tafuri: I know his name.
Bindman: Arthur said to me, "You
know, everybody practices patterns, but that doesn't mean you play them," because
the whole ethic up there [at Bennington College] was trying to get to
this "core" of "central sound," right? To get rid
of all the bullshit. I mean, I don't think of it as "bullshit," but,
you know, to get rid of all the extraneous "fluff" —whatever
you want to call it. Of course, I've had to reevaluate that over
and over if that's really the right approach. Certainly it's the
right approach for teaching people how to be involved with music, but
it can be so dogmatic, that it cuts out a whole other world of music.
Tafuri: Well, for example, I still
see mostly traditional methods being pushed at the IAJE [International
Association for Jazz Education] conference.
Bindman: That's the exact opposite
of where Bill and Arthur are. They were like...
Tafuri: "Forget about it!"
Bindman: Yeah, "forget that!"
Tafuri: "Make sound."
Bindman: "Make sound." You
know, the "essential" sound. But now it's interesting,
because I don't think that's really what they meant. I
still believe that Bill has an awful lot of good information to give
people —and inspiration. So, that's how I got involved with
New Music. Then I came down to New York and heard Cecil Taylor,
I heard Sam Rivers, and for me that was "it," because the other
music was just old, it was being "re-done." Arthur
was right: you practice patterns, but it doesn't mean you need to play
them. Music should not be this display of technique.
Tafuri: But, at the time, you really
got into their concept.
Bindman: At the same time, I was
learning to blow [chord] changes ... on my own. I always had a good
ear for harmony, for changes. I sort of figured out how to play
Tafuri: But they both hit you at
the same time.
Bindman: At the same time.
Tafuri: Which was a nice way to do
it. Sort of yin-yang.
Bindman: I think in my playing, the
middle of that sort of comes out.
Tafuri: Had you written for saxophone
Tafuri: So, you basically started
writing for this group.
Bindman: Yes, I did, actually for
one of the Co-op concerts. I had written this piece called "Gadzo" that's
on the first CD. That was something I had learned from Freeman
Donkor. Are you familiar with the group Talking Drums?
Bindman: That was a group that I
was in with Abraham Adzenyah, who had run the group, and Royal Hartigan. You
know Royal, right?
Tafuri: Royal's a great drummer —actually, "percussionist."
Bindman: And Rob Lancefield played
guitar. So, they were these Ghanaians, and Freeman is from the
Eve people from the Volta region of Ghana, and "Gadzo" was
this piece that he had taught us in Talking Drums. Royal brought
it into his group and put all the different drum parts on the drum set,
and then I adapted it. It lends itself to be done over and over
in so many different ways. It's a song, basically.
Tafuri: It's like a folksong?
Bindman: Yeah, exactly. A very
simple folksong, but with all this rhythm underneath. Except for
the bell pattern, I didn't try to duplicate the rhythms; I just tried
to duplicate the feeling of it. That was the first really
successful piece I wrote for this group.
Tafuri: When you're writing for this
group —a group of improvisers, how many room do you make for improvisation?
I'm assuming you're not doing "head arrangements."
Bindman: No, not at all.
Tafuri: So, there are "through-composed" sections
(as they say) and improvised sections.
Bindman: That, for me, is the biggest
challenge, because I love to improvise. For everybody who plays
this music, that's what we love to do. To create these structures
where the music can come alive naturally out of the music, not just to
say, "Now we improvise."
We do have head arrangements; we have "Jitterbug Waltz" where
we're following the form, and that's actually our most "straight
ahead" arrangement. For that piece, actually I rewrote a lot
of the harmonies but, when it comes to the improvised sections, either
Fred or I are playing backgrounds to the soloist who's playing the changes
of the song. It's the same thing with "[In a] Sentimental
Mood." When we do those "classics" (or whatever you want
to call them), we're following the chord changes pretty strictly when
it's the improvisational part, but then we have to figure out how to "make
it work." We have to figure out where the rhythm's coming from and
where's the energy coming from (other than from the soloist) when you
don't have a drummer or bass player, and you don't have a piano playing
the chords. So, even within those kinds of pieces, there's a lot
to figure out about how to make them work.
Within our original compositions, the sections can be a lot longer, and
there are structures that are much freer. We often use vamps. For
instance on "Spinning," there are a number of vamps that provide
the underpinning for the improvisations. One person may be holding
down this vamp, but then there all this stuff that gets layered by the
rest of the band.
Tafuri: Are the vamps notated?
Bindman: Yes, definitely. In
fact, in that piece, somebody listening might not realize it, but the
vamp is actually in 11/8. When I say vamp, I mean obviously "a
Tafuri: An ostinato.
Bindman: Right. It's a three-bar
vamp in 11/8 under the soprano solo.
Bindman: And then it metamorphoses,
so that's where the composing comes in: how to create this drama in this
rhythmic figure that repeats and changes? That's a piece I worked very
hard on to get it to move from one section to another in an organic way.
Tafuri: How did you all arrive at
the music that was going on this particular recording?
Bindman: We had more repertoire than
could go on it, but it was based on what we felt would make a good recording. At
the end of our last tour, we had decided that I would do an arrangement
of "A Night in Tunisia." Fred suggested it, and I had picked
up on it, because Royal had done this arrangement in 7/8 that I had been
raving to Fred about. Fred said why don't you do it? So, I arranged
his [Royal's] arrangement for the quartet, and then he [Fred] did "Lush
Life." We talked about this two years ago, because we liked the
idea of doing some standards. So, those came about a couple of
years ago; then we both just followed through with that.
For the original material, Fred had written this suite Yellow Power,
Yellow Soul. You know, Fred writes things that have very specific
social messages, and also he's drawing on folk melodies for that. We
ended up using only one piece from that suite, "Fishing Song of
the East China Sea," and that's something that he had written for
his [Afro-Asian Music] Ensemble many years ago.
Tafuri: So, the repertoire for this
recording came together in sort of the way the band did: it became evident. You
contributed things, and Fred did.
Bindman: The way Fred and I write
is very different in a lot of ways, but the way we use improvisation
is very different. His pieces tend to be more through-composed
Bindman: Well, mine are through-composed,
but they have many more open sections where people can go in lots of
different directions, whereas Fred's are more structured and compact,
in a certain way, and very dense. There's improvisation in there,
but there are these other things that lock together. The fact that
our styles are so different is one of the things that, I think, have
worked for the group.
Tafuri: That and the core of three
players who worked together in the AAME. You already had differing
styles of playing. Is the program on the CD pretty much the program
you had planned, or did Sam [Furnace's] getting sick and eventually passing
away affect the programming in any way?
Bindman: It didn't change it, but
there were pieces that we felt we really wanted him to play on, because
his voice was so much a part of the conceiving of those pieces. They
were "A Night in Tunisia" and Fred's Black Nation Suite. I
never let myself believe that Sam wasn't getting better, but I also felt
like, "Sam, we need to record now." I felt this to
myself that, if we don't record now, he might be getting sicker, and
he'll never be on these pieces. In my mind, I felt like these pieces
were identified with him.
Tafuri: You wrote the "Night
in Tunisia" arrangement with him in mind. So, getting Sam
on the record was part of the motivation for recording those pieces first,
but Sam was already pretty sick even then.
Bindman: He was sick.
Tafuri: But it was amazing, because
Sam played right up until the very end.
Bindman: We did a concert with him
in December, and we did this Berlioz piece at Joe's Pub and also at WNYC,
and he was really sick —I mean, really sick. But
once we were able to get him there —because it was hard for him
to get out of cars —and after he'd gone through the hassle of getting
out of the house, then everything changed, and he was good;
he was himself. It was like, "Okay, I'm not sick for a little
while," and his sense of humor was powerful.
Tafuri: It was like he was "transformed."
Bindman: Yes. So, at the last
concert we did, we actually had another altoist. This guy Mark
Bernstein had come in from Denmark to do one of Fred's projects, so Mark
kind of spelled Sam, and then Sam came back for the last piece. After
he died, there was a question of who was going to be in the group and
how we were going to finish the recording. Then a tour came together,
and Rudresh [Mahanthappa] agreed to do the tour. He learned all
the music, and the group kind of coalesced on the tour. So, it
felt right to record again; it felt like the moment was right.
Tafuri: You were ready to go.
Well, it's a beautiful recording. It's a mixture of "new" and "old," and "in" and "out." I
think that's special. The other thing, of course, is that it's
special, because we do have Sam playing on here.
What did Sam, as a person, mean to you, and what did he mean to you musically?
Because, as you said, you go all the way back to the AAME together.
Bindman: Sam was extremely open to
everybody. In fact, wherever we went, he always remembered musicians
whom he had met —in Seattle or Montana or wherever it was. He
had a keen interest in maintaining friendships with players, and he would
always bring his DAT recorder or Mini-Disc recorder to record the gigs. I
mean, he wasn't going to use those recordings for anything; he just wanted
to hear it afterwards. And he was very accepting of musicians so
that, when you played with him, you didn't feel like there was an ego
thing going on. When I joined the Afro-Asian Music Ensemble, I
felt almost immediately that there was a connection, and I think a lot
of musicians felt that way about him. You should have seen, at
his funeral, how many people came. I mean, people loved him.
Tafuri: My experience of Sam is that
he was a really beautiful, open, kind, unpretentious person, who played
great. He could play "out" or he could be "soulful." He
was a really nice cat.
Bindman: And he never had an attitude
towards anybody, like, 'I'm this somebody, and you're nobody.' He loved
to hang out and talk with people —not just with musicians. And
he was also very giving of his time as a player, to rehearse and be part
of the music —beyond it being part of a gig. And, by the
way, that's what allowed this group to really develop: the fact that
we said, "Okay, we're gonna rehearse; we don't have a gig, but we're
gonna rehearse and try out this new music."
Tafuri: Which is so important because,
in so many groups, you can't do that or people are not willing
to do that, unless it's tied to a gig or a tour or something like that.
Bindman: Exactly. And that's
a hard reality that I've been looking at in New York, in just trying
to wrap my mind around that reality. I was really glad that, when
he was sick, he would let me do things for him, because I felt
like he had given so much, you know, and it was good to be able to give
him a little back —like to drive him somewhere —because he
had been totally open.
He was hilarious, too.
Tafuri: A very funny guy. When
I'd see him at a gig or in a club or at a party, he always had a quick
comment that would catch me off guard and crack me up.
Bindman: And he was very into technology,
Tafuri: I remember him with a digital
Bindman: Anything digital, with him
he had it.
Tafuri: And his music was so organic.
Bindman: It is, but it's interesting,
but he also had a sort of "mathematical" thing, too. (I
don't think he thought of it as mathematical.) It was "organic," but
it was also very much inside the structure of whatever was going
on. Even though he played with many so-called "out" players,
he also had this sort of laser-like way of dealing with chord changes —this
sort of not-wanting-to-go-outside-of-the-changes thing. I think
he had probably, not "wrestled" with, but dealt with that:
that he was going not to go out of the tradition too much.
Tafuri: Would you like to talk about
any of your pieces?
Bindman: "Tie Me Sufre" also
came out of my time with Talking Drums. Actually, several of the
pieces are things that I'd had bouncing around in my head for a long
time or that were performed in one way or another. "Spinning" is
new, but it has elements of a phrase I'd written almost twenty years
ago; it's a brand new composition. I don't know who it was —Ned
Rothenberg, I think —who said something about 'plagiarizing from
yourself.' For that piece, I took this phrase which you hear, in its
entirety, at the end of the piece. The last long phrase of the
piece is this thing I wrote twenty years ago, and it starts out with
that, but it completely breaks apart. It's like stream of consciousness
writing. I think some people who write this way have no clue about
what's coming next. Fred knows where he's going with a piece; I
don't. It takes all these different directions. That piece
has this whole part in 11. Basically, you don't always have to
be in 4/4, and there's so much with time that can be done to really change
and enliven the music. Not just dropping rhythm. You know,
there was this idea in the '60s (and since then) that everything must
be out-of-time, but I don't believe that either. I believe you should be
able to play out-of-time but, also within time, there are all these different
ways of subdividing time. You know, Indian, South Indian ideas,
and so forth.
Tafuri: Extended and mixed meters.
Bindman: Exactly. That's what
that piece deals with. Now, the first piece, "Tie Me Sufre," was
what came out of Talking Drums, and this was a piece that I had written
basically as a very simple kind of blues piece. We were in a sound
check, and I was playing it Royal and Wes. Maxwell Amoh, one of
the Ghanaians, heard it, and he started playing the bell pattern to Adowa,
which is deep funeral music for the Ashanti. I mean, when you hear
Adowa, you might think you're hearing it one way and, suddenly, you have
no idea where the time is, because you hear a different emphasis of the
pulse. I had written that piece as a jazz piece, and then they
adapted it and wrote lyrics to it, and it became this piece for talking
drums. So, then I sort of "reappropriated it" for myself,
after that group basically disbanded.
Tafuri: I think it's really interesting
that you worked with a group like Talking Drums because, like you were
saying earlier, when you work with a pianoless quartet or in a sax quartet
where there's no piano, no bass, and no drums, rhythm is so important
to the group. That has to be one of the main things that motivates
Bindman: Right. I had this
singular experience working with Abraham and Freeman [Talking Drums]
that I'm very thankful for having had; it totally influenced
the way I hear time. I feel really fortunate to have had the chance
to work with those guys, because I was a student at Wesleyan [University
in Middletown, Connecticut,], but I wasn't really excited about their
program. I mean, I loved the music, but it was just...
Tafuri: A class like?
Bindman: Intro to West African
Drumming. I had stopped, because there was no improvisation;
it was all, you know, "Play this repetitive part, over and over
again." I was somewhat eager or cocky, and I wanted to move on.
Tafuri: You wanted to improvise!
Bindman: But then, since I was playing
saxophone, Abraham knew who I was, and he invited me to join that group,
and then it was like, "Now you have to play this stuff ... on stage." Right?
So, I had to learn it really quickly; I had to hear it and then be able
to play the horn around it. That music is some of the most difficult,
complex music I've ever heard —the music from Ghana. So,
I had to heard time all different ways and, in the quartet, I've tried
to incorporate those different time elements. In "Tie Me Sufre," you
Tafuri: I even hear that in "Night
in Tunisia." There's a lot of "playing with the tempos" there.
Bindman: "Tunisia" is in
7/8. 7's a more common time, but still —
Tafuri: A "common time" for
whom? Maybe for you, it is.
Bindman: Well, a lot of guys in New
York like really odd meters. But that tune wasn't written in 7.
Bindman: Royal wrote this bass line
to go with it and, when you hear it, it sounds so natural like, "Oh,
why didn't Dizzy write that himself?"
Tafuri: And how about your piece "Spinning"?
You mentioned that it had been based on something you had written a long
Bindman: It was something about wanting
to bring that phrase to life. The title "Spinning" just
came from a mental state of mind.
Tafuri: Where I frequently live also.
Bindman: And also the physical aspect
of matter and movement. It's sort of like the solar system and
stuff flying off into space. Then, at the same time, there's all
this political stuff going on where it's all about "spinning."
Tafuri: Or putting a political spin
Bindman: Exactly. So, it's
all those things going into that title. And about "Jajo"—
Tafuri: Oh, I'm sorry to interrupt,
but there's a part of that —and forgive me, because I know musicians
sometimes don't like what they do to be compared with other musicians —that
has this real "WSQ vibe" (you know, the World Saxophone Quartet).
Bindman: Does it?
Tafuri: Oh, yeah. Having been
at Black Saint/Soul Note, I've listened many times to all those records,
and there's a real part of this recording and this piece that swings
in a WSQey sort of way. That's great, because I always felt that
the WSQ was a group that definitely was out of the tradition, but they
were definitely making something new, too. They were right on that "tradition
in transition" kind of thing, you know, and that's what this music
is all about.
Bindman: Absolutely. About "Jajo," the
title means "egg" in Polish, and it's just a "fun" piece. And,
yes, part of it has a real Julius Hemphill thing.
Tafuri: Have you gotten into any
of his music?
Bindman: Not to the point of studying it but, just
whenever I hear it, I say, "Oh, who's that?" and then, whenever
I know it's him, I say, "Of course, it's him."
Tafuri: Hemphill's music was so distinctive.
Bindman: I think that reference was
just by chance. That piece also had a long metamorphosis. It
started way back and, also, I couldn't let go of the themes in it, then
new things developed eight years later.
Tafuri: Well, it's a lot of long-gestated
music. And then it comes out, and it's ready to be put on the page.
Bindman: Now, Fred's music... Of course,
you're getting my take on my music. You read the political descriptions
of his music, and he and I write very differently. When he's done
with a piece, it's fully formed.
Tafuri: He can let it go.
Bindman: He lets it go, but he also
puts it down definitively. Whereas, I like to hear what's happening
and then tweak it.
Tafuri: I'm not surprised.
Bindman: Yeah, the difference in
personality, huh? Oh, and I almost forgot to tell you something about "Jajo." Anyway,
the title means "egg" in Polish. My daughter's mom is
Polish, so I've had a lot of immersion in Polish culture when my daughter
was a baby, and that's when I'd written the first part of it. But
also, it's very reggae influenced. There's a whole reggae-inspired
section, and there's even a Bob Marley reference in there, which nobody
will get. It's in there.
Tafuri: Great. "E-mail
us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell us what you think it is."