David BindmanInterview 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 it?

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 from audiences?

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 bebop.

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 quartet previously?

Bindman: Never.

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?

Tafuri: Yes.

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 repetitive pattern."

Tafuri: An ostinato.

Bindman: Right.  It's a three-bar vamp in 11/8 under the soprano solo.

Tafuri: Cool.

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 than mine.

Tafuri: Really?

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, too.

Tafuri: I remember him with a digital camera.

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 it.

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 hear that.

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.

Tafuri: Sure.

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 time ago.

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 on something.

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 bsq@omnitone.com, and tell us what you think it is."

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