Tim Berne’s Softer Side

Hugo Carvalhais Trio w/Tim BerneNebulosa (Clean Feed, 2010)

Tune in to the track “North” on this album, and you might question whether you’re really hearing Tim Berne. It’s got a pleasant theme that would go down well as dinner music, with writing that’s fresh but not deeply challenging, and quite relaxing. Even the sax solo, which displays plenty of Berne’s mechanics, fits so nicely within the lines that you’d wonder if it’s the same guy.

It is, and while Berne plus a postbop piano trio isn’t the most obvious matchup, he’s done things like this before. Nels Cline‘s first album, Angelica (Enja, 1988), is lyrical and downright pretty, and it’s got Berne on saxophone.

Bassist Carvalhais is definitely a scholar of jazz, and he’s got pianist Gabriel Pinto playing some downright nice postbop stuff here. But a listen to the full album shows you why he’d even think of adding Berne to the mix. Carvalhais seems to relish the possibilities of spare, wide-open playing, which does show up a lot on this album. The opening tracks give Berne plenty of space for skipping around the changes, and “Nebulosa part IV” combines Berne with Carvalhais and drummer Mário Costa in a fast-moving yet spare environment, full of stop/go energy in a dry, pianoless space. Both bassist and drummer seem to really be savoring the moment.

“Nebulosa part III” displays both sides of the album’s personality well. Pinto starts with some classical-jazz piano, using chord patters that are friendly but pensive, still in the realm of serious music. Berne’s planned entrance comes at the end in a sunburst, as he spatters notes in all directions.

Carvalhais also dabbles with synthesizers here and there, for a touch that’s a little bit modern and not so heavyhanded as to become grating. I probably would have been happy without the synths, but it does add another voice into the mix.

Overall, the album definitely tickles my mainstream-jazz center more than my free-jazz one. Don’t dismiss it as dull, though. Carvalhais and especially Costa put in some fine work here.

Carvalhais is a young bassist leading a young trio on their first studio album, and he’s part of Portugal’s jazz scene. The latter part matters; Clean Feed, a Portugese label, has done fine work documenting American free jazz, and I feel I owe it to them to tap their native country’s well. This album is a good place to start. It’s drawn some rave reviews, and more than a few critics will be keeping an eye out for what Carvalhais tries next.

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