It’s Sunday night at Dalston’s Total Refreshment Centre, and a heaving crowd gathers to celebrate the launch of Binker and Moses’ sophomore release, Journey to the Mountain of Forever. It’s a fresh and vital record, minimally composed and maximally performed with the loose ambience of an impromptu get-together covertly captured by tapes left running. Tonight’s set will see them mainly dropping cuts from that record, with a two set structure which mirrors the double-album format of its source material.
The first set features the band reduced to its core – saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd take the stage unaccompanied. There is a profound sense of intimacy projected by this skeletal line-up. It feels at times as if one has stumbled into a jam session between the two, the presence of an audience incidental and largely unnoticed. The two players face each other head on, eyes darting over lithe limbs in an effort to anticipate the other’s next move. The freedom of the music takes on an almost conversational feel, each player feeding the other lines which are immediately reciprocated: scattershot drum refrains ricochet off the kit and onto the sax, the incipient melodic content of the run teased out through Binker’s interpretation. This feels less like a show, more a dialogue between friends, each finishing the other’s sentences with a familiarity borne out of years of companionship.
For the second set the interlocutors open up the conversation. Byron Wallen and Tori Handsley accompany on trumpet and harp respectively, while Binker and Moses are doubled up with the addition of an extra saxophonist and drummer.
If the duo were trying to challenge themselves through their choice of accompaniment, they could hardly have chosen more worthy adversaries. Scene stalwart Yussef Dayes has earned himself a reputation as a purveyor of primal power, unparalleled amongst his contemporaries; Evan Parker is a free-jazz legend, his presence tonight (as well as on the album) an implicit seal of intergenerational approval from an elder statesman of the genre. Viewing the concert line-up on paper, one would even be forgiven for thinking that Binker and Moses risked being overshadowed on their own stage. In practice though, the expanded line-up is nothing but complimentary.
At points even, the additions feel like extensions of the very same instrument. The horns weave together in dense atonal tapestries, the very space between the instruments elided in the amorphous shapes they create; drum fills constantly run off of one kit and onto the other as if spilled out in liquid form. If there is any sense of one-upmanship on display, it is resolutely good-humoured: Yussef laughs audibly as Moses catches and returns a rhythmic pot-shot without breaking a sweat.
While every player delivers invaluable contributions, it is the younger cohort who occupy the spotlight. The eponymous Binker and Moses – as well as second drummer Yussef – are all key players in a rising London jazz revolution. Under their direction, the genre has been prised from the calcified clutches of the Ronnie-Scotts-on-a-Friday-night crowd and revivified with a healthy dose of contemporary urban references. Jazz is once more in vogue and they are, by all accounts, the new ‘it’ kids.
However, with such status comes a sense of cool detachment which is so often its concomitant. The house and grime references employed in their former output may have freed the genre from slavish adherence to the standards of yesteryear but, in so doing, introduced constraints of their own: programmed synths erase evidence of their origins; break beats thunder with machine-like precision leaving little latitude for free-form expression. Listening to much of these artists’ former output, I could never escape the feeling that it felt a little detached, even impersonal.
But if much of their former output traded emotion for innovation, then tonight’s showing is evidence of liberation. The music exhibited tonight is ecstatic, rapturous, even spiritual. Its closest sonic analogues are 60s cuts by the likes of Pharoah Sanders, the Coltranes, Archie Shepp. Notes habitually overflow into atonal wails, melodic constraints evidently inadequate to the task of accommodating the pure emotion poured through these instruments. That said, their sound is by no means purely nostalgic. Diverse influences, both old and new are deftly integrated here; they’re just given more room to breathe.
In his seminal Blues People, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) commented that the free jazz pioneers “re-emphasis[ed] the most expressive qualities of the Afro-American musical tradition” and, in so doing, “restored improvisation to its traditional role of invaluable significance, again removing jazz from the hands of the less than gifted arranger and the fashionable diluter.” His referents here are Coltrane, Coleman, Parker et al.; the “dilutors” and “arrangers” their antecedents, the adherents of the third-way and progressive jazz variants. However, I feel that his insights suit application here. This is emotional, spiritual music, irreducibly improvised – indeed, the impoverished structures of written notation could hardly accommodate the timbral complexity of the music on display tonight.
For Baraka, what is so vital about jazz music is its emotional core, its ability to function as a vessel for the unspoken – and often unspeakable – beliefs, values and concerns of its players. But, even more importantly, when properly realised, he claims its proponents become links in a continuum of diasporic African culture, which, beneath the innovations, always expresses the same core consciousness, thus investing the music with a profound interpersonal and intergenerational significance. It speaks not just for the individual or group, but for a whole people. It’s early days for the group, and they undoubtedly have much room to grow and develop. Nevertheless, on the basis of this show and its accompanying album, it seems relatively assured that Binker and Moses have earned their place in that tradition.