Binker & Moses: twin peaks

Binker and Moses

The debut long-player, Dem Ones, from young-gun sax and drums duo Binker & Moses, garnered the prodigious pair some serious critical heat. Their forthright improv-heavy, beat-fuelled approach has also resonated with a youthful fanbase currently engaging with jazz. Kevin Le Gendre spoke to the award-wining Londoners and former Tomorrow’s Warriors alumni about their ambitious double-album follow-up, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever, which features cameos from Evan Parker, Byron Wallen and tabla-player Sarathy Korwar

Equipped with eye-catching paraphernalia, from a vinyl-cutting lathe to an all-tube mastering board, the office of Gearbox records in Kings Cross, north London, is vintage to the core, or rather wax cylinder. The fact that Binker & Moses, as in saxophonist Golding and drummer Boyd, have noticed that their 2015 album Dem Ones, one of the label’s most critically acclaimed releases in recent years, has been removed from a shelf graced by the works of legends Michael Garrick and Dexter Gordon simply emphasises the importance of artifact, as in sleeves and the black plastic they contain, in the label’s retro-nouveau raison d'être. It is also a cue for a bout of humour. “See how we’ve been replaced by bigger people,” quips Binker to a hearty chuckle from Moses.” Yeah, one minute you’re up there and the next minute you’re not, literally.”

For two 20-something musicians who are mandatorily called members of the download generation the question of formats in which music is available is an interesting one. Gearbox presciently carved its niche as a vinyl-only imprint before the recent resurgence of the LP, and Binker & Moses both have strong opinions on the cultural currency of an album, a tangible object, as opposed to a file, a digital unit.

“I’m all into hard copy,” says Binker. “Most things that I like I collect in some way. I’ve got small and large collections of CDs, vinyl, VHS, DVDs, dead animals… butterflies in boxes. Anything that I’m into I buy a lot of. I like possessions. The most irritating line that John Lennon ever wrote was ‘imagine no possessions’. It really pissed me off. I like stuff around me, I believe in people owning a physical hard copy of what they pay for. I think it changes the perception of the music. It can’t change the music, but Dark Side Of The Moon is not the same album if you just have it on download. A Love Supreme… it’s just not the same thing without the artwork. So yeah, I judge books by their covers, I even judge albums by their covers sometimes too.”

With a touch of irony, given this lionisation of ‘old media’, we glance at a computer screen to see the artwork of Journey To The Mountain Of Forever and behold a striking depiction of a fantasy world by Jim Burns in which mythical beasts are juxtaposed with illustrations of Golding, Boyd and several new collaborators ‘in character’, as befits a work that has a thought-provoking narrative spread over its lengthy duration.

A double album where one record is a duo session and the second an augmentation of the band to include saxophonist Evan Parker, harpist Tori Handsley, tabla player Sarathy Korwar, trumpeter Byron Wallen and drummer Youssef Dayes, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever is nothing if not ambitious. The music draws a coherent line between composition and improvisation, time and no time, rhythmic ingenuity and freedom of pulse and tonality. Above all the conceptual palette is multi-faceted. The flighty swing of calypso on the first disc is a point of cogent contrast to the earthy ‘sound painting’ on the second.

As graduates of the Tomorrow’s Warriors development school who came to prominence in the millennium and have distinguished themselves in different ways – Golding as an arranger for the Nu Civilization Orchestra and Boyd as the drummer for the trio of another TW alumnus, Peter Edwards – the Londoners embody a progressive slant in British jazz. They are as comfortable in a soulful, blues-based setting with the likes of singer Zara McFarlane, with whom both have played extensively, as they are in a more avant-garde context, and this new set sees them expand both the ideas and timbres presented on their debut.

There was a vague prelude to Journey To The Mountain Of Forever last year insofar as Binker & Moses jammed with tabla player-producer Korwar, whose own 2016 album Day To Day was very well received, but for the most part the gathering of guests on the second record was a high risk strategy as no music was prepared in advance for players who were unfamiliar with each other. Binker & Moses asked their collaborators to pitch up at the studio on the back of a desire to bring to fruition what they’d been hearing during ‘visioning’ periods.

Moses: “We already had a strong idea of the soundworld. Every single one of the collaborators we picked for it. So it wasn’t particularly difficult getting all the people into a room to generate that because they’re all great people and great improvisers. They were comfortable with what we were doing. It wasn’t a stress situation at all; I’ve been in a few of those. We hadn’t played with Evan until he’d turned up, but we learned a lot just having him in the room, and it changed the way I played completely because he has his own language, it brings something else out of you. There is a certain magic in that. Youssef had never played with Tori, who’d never played with Sarathy.

“We never hire somebody or an instrument because it’s a novelty,” says Binker firmly. “Hire it because you need that sound, as that’s where the sound is going. I think some people see the harp as a sort of semi-novelty instrument because there aren’t that many harpists around in jazz and they think that the musician is just gonna play glissando all the time. Well, there’s not one glissando on our record. It’s not about getting an instrument because it’s quirky. We sat down and listened to the voices in our heads and we thought the only instrument that can convey this is the harp. A harp, piano and guitar can all do similar things depending on how they’re played, but the sound we needed was the harp. You hear the music in your head first and then work back from there, rather than saying we want a tabla or we want harp. You might end up with something interesting depending on how skilled the musicians are, but it’s better to do it the other way round. You end up with a richer result. It’s like orchestrating for symphony orchestra or big band; you work backwards. You don’t say I’ve got eight French horns and I’ve got to find something for them to do. Even if they’ve only got one note in 45 minutes I have to work that way round. In the case of Evan Parker it was his sound, what he brings. It wasn’t like we need another saxophone. He’s an instrument in himself. You don’t think Evan Parker on saxophone, you just think Evan Parker.”

The resulting blend of sounds and personalities, or rather the characters as Binker & Moses see them, is refreshingly original. At the core is the saxophone-drums duo, a conjunction whose long line of precedents, from Coltrane-Ali to McLean-Carvin and Murray-El Zabar, is upheld by the sharp interactivity as well as individuality of the two Londoners. Playing together for many years in a variety of different contexts has consolidated the creative chemistry between Binker and Moses, and, as was the case with Dem Ones, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever has some thrilling exchanges between them, whether they are bringing a raw edge to music that is danceable or submerging into a much more serene, abstract, meditative space. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the two-disc set is that the second album featuring the various guests, all the while marking a significant sonic departure, sees no slip of the high standard of performance that defines the first.

Interestingly, something that becomes clear about the duo in interview is the marked difference between their personalities. Moses is genial, Binker forthright, if not intense, and by his own admission he is the one who might call for revisions when they are recording jointly composed material. He might be the one to crease his brow rather than crack a smile. “Of the two of us, I’m the worrier,” says Binker with a steely glance, as Moses beams in the background. “He’s like ‘oh yeah, it’ll be fine. It’ll be fine’, and I’m like ‘no, how do you know?’ I’ll say we need eight bars of this here and we’ll do it; and he’ll be ‘that’s good too’. Moses is like the final editor in a way. I mean we can both just balance things up.”

“I used to be a perfectionist for recording,” adds Moses. “But from just doing it so much – not with this band but with other people – I’m now at that point where it will be what it’ll be. I want it as good as it can be but there are so many factors that can affect a recording that I just accept that the day of a session will be a document of the day. By the time I’ve done a take I know what it is, I don’t need to listen and scrutinise. I know where I’ve missed a cymbal crash, if I can live with that then I will.”

“I tend to get more vexed,” says Binker pointedly. Another spontaneous chuckle breaks out. Those who attended last year’s Parliamentary and Jazz FM award shows will be able to recall the mirth of the duo as they picked up their statuettes, and the general consensus was that they had brought much freshness to the improvised music scene, challenging themselves in a format, the sax-drums duo, that is a demanding prospect for players old and young.

The musical resolve that binds the two is paralleled by what appears to be a deep empathy, and this is highlighted in a brief but nonetheless meaningful exchange triggered by an observation on their garms. Both are dressed casually, in jeans and plain-coloured tops, but Binker’s white t-shirt bears a headturner of a slogan: Reagan Bush ’84. Strangers might take him for a roadrage Republican but the ready cynicism he evinces, a characteristic that is useful in an age of spin, is not to be scoffed at. Moses is keen to debate the point in any case.

“So what’s the t-shirt saying then?”

“It’s about Trump right now. Things are so bad that people are wishing for 1984, which was obviously bad… it’s a sign of where we are.”

“You could have had Obama?”

“It wouldn’t have been enough. Reagan is Babylon-lite compared to what’s going on now. Just goes to show how bad things are.”

“I see what you’re saying.”

“It’s just the Charles Mingus in me.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to the UK's biggest selling jazz magazine, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

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