Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, which disbanded sometime around 2000, left a wealth of long-form pieces to pore over — 20- and 40-minute compositions (or longer!) with compelling composed segments and spellbinding improvisation. The quartet tears it up on the rough and ragged 3-CD set, Unwound, and they’re presented in more studious, pristine form on the essential Paris Concert trilogy (still available on Winter & Winter).
And the basement tapes from that 1994-1998’ish timeframe keep coming. Berne put out a 2-CD set, Seconds, featuring tracks a mere 10 or so minutes long (but accompanied by a DVD of the 51-minute “Eye Contact”).
Now there’s Insomnia, two half-hour pieces featuring the five-man Bloodcount team plus three guests. It adds up to what looks like a chamber ensemble, including trumpet (Baikida Carroll), clarinet (Chris Speed), cello (Erik Friedlander), violin (Dominique Pifarely), and acoustic guitar (Marc Ducret). Recorded in 1997 after a sleepless night on Berne’s part, as he recounted for Downtown Music Gallery (click here and scroll down), the album delivers two long-form suites from the vein that Bloodcount so skillfully mined.
There’s a familiarity to the moments when the group comes in for a landing, easing into a composed section after playing freely. It’s not like Bloodcount is the only group that’s ever done that, but something about those moments on here sounds like Bloodcount. It’s as if the core quintet is the hive mind directing the piece, even though the three guest members each bring strong personality to the music.
The sound palette is considerably wider than Bloodcount’s, though. “The Proposal” starts out velvety and chamber-like, drawing from the same source as Bloodcount’s track, “The Other.” Ducret’s acoustic guitar adds a soft, chiming texture that I’ve never heard with Bloodcount (he’d always been on electric). There’s a particularly nice moment early on where he doubles up with Michael Formanek’s bass, splashing the occasional chord against the plucked bass strings and a lightly dancing Carroll solo on trumpet.
About halfway through “The Proposal,” Ducret launches a peppy, strings-heavy theme that leads to a particularly symphonic passage where trumpet, guitar, cello, sax, and clarinet are each playing fragments of themes. It’s a carefully arranged and fast-moving segment that shines. It’s through moments like that that Berne’s suites, at their best, exude an aura of control that I’ve always enjoyed. You feel like you’re traversing a carefully laid-out plan, an invisible schematic.
“Open, Coma” opens unlike anything Bloodcount ever did — with acoustic guitar and trumpet dominating the scene, followed by a frenzied Pifaly violin solo. It’s only 6 minutes into the 29-minute piece that a Berne-like theme pops up, returning the song to familiar ground.
Like “The Proposal,” “Open Coma” goes through a gauntlet of mood swings. Its composed themes feel grander, almost like dark marches sometimes, and the improvising seems more of a free-for-all, touching on that orchestra-tuning-up sound more often than “The Proposal” did. Much of the second half is taken up by a good, long Berne solo, lively and kicking, showing none of the ill effects of sleeplessness.
One odd thing I noticed was how little I noticed Jim Black. He’s there, but it wasn’t until his solo at the end of “Open, Coma” that I realized I hadn’t been paying attention to him. I guess there was just that much else going on.