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.

Tim Berne’s To-Do List

After a period of relative silence in terms of CD releases, Tim Berne is busting loose. From the e-mail newsletter for his Screwgun Records label, here’s what he says is on the way:

* Insomnia on the Clean Feed label (already out, but it’s a good place to start).

* Old and Unwise, on Clean Feed — duo with bassist Bruno Chevillon. Arriving in May.

* On ECM, a CD from his band Los Totopos, which includes Berne (sax), Oscar Noriega (other sax), Matt Mitchell (keyboards), and Ches Smith (drums). The band has been performing regularly for a couple of years now, it seems, and should be in top form for their upcoming Australian tour.  The Screwgun home page offers some sound clips and a taste of Totopos on video; I’ve embedded the same video below. UPDATE: I should add that the CD is unmixed and not likely to appear this year. That’s what Berne indicates in his e-mail; I’m adding this because I think some folks who’ve seen that e-mail are stumbling on this blog hoping for more info.

* Sons of Champignon, a band originally called The BBC, apparently has a CD arriving this year. It’s the trio of Berne (sax), Nels Cline (guitar), and Jim Black (drums). They, too, are findable on YouTube.

And now, Los Totopos:

More from the Bloodcount Vaults

Tim Berne Insomnia (Clean Feed, 2011)

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.

About Year-End Polls

One thing Pi Recordings has going for it is exposure. They send CDs out to radio stations, college radio in particular, and manage to snag reviews in most jazz publications, it seems. The investment has paid off, making the label an NPR darling.

So, it’s getting less and less surprising to see Pi stuffing year-end Top 10 lists, such as the recently released Fifth Annual Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll, a big-deal poll that’s often stacked on the side of creative music.

I’m not trying to say Pi’s only trick is to get in people’s faces. The music is good, and no amount of promotion could gain Pi its following otherwise. Plus, Pi’s artist list includes innovative and noticed new artists (Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer) alongside venerable free-jazzers (Henry Threadgill, whose name graced Pi’s first two albums, and Steve Coleman). It adds up to that intangible quality that helps make a label stand out: a sound. Maybe I’m cheating by picking related artists (note especially the Coleman influence on Iyer and Mahanthappa), but I do think Pi has come to stand for a new type of jazz structure, one that swings with an intricate logic. That identity has led to a devotion among critics, making Pi a bit of a starmaker.

Another year-end poll regular, Clean Feed, does not service college radio, but they do seem to send out enough review copies to stay on the radar. Good thing, too, because as the Village Voice‘s Francis Davis puts it, Clean Feed is becoming the 2000s equivalent of Black Saint/Soul Note: a European label doing yeoman’s work at documenting American jazz. Again, you could argue that it’s all about the numbers game of exposure. But as with Pi, it’s the high quality of the music that keeps ’em coming back and primes critics’ attention for a CD from a new voice such as Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch, which won Best Debut among the pollsters. (That category’s voting was sparse, but it’s still one for the “W” column. Congratulations!)

Two dozen Clean Feed CDs received votes in the Village Voice‘s poll. Smaller labels like Pi pick their targets carefully, but Clean Feed releases music in big chunks. That 24 of its albums were poll-worthy speaks to a consistency of quality.

Keep in mind, we’re talking about a poll among critics — people whose ears perk up at the news of a new Mary Halvorson release or who tear open a Threadgill package with eager anticipation. As history repeatedly proves, scoring high on the critics’ list doesn’t always pay the bills. Still, the recognition has to be nice — and it’s gratifying for us listeners to see these names get their deserved accolades and to have their work submitted into the debates about the year’s achievements. That’s why we like end-of-year lists, or critics’ polls, or all-star games.

Artwork lifted from azwaldo on Flickr.

Some previous Lisa Mezzacappa/Bait & Switch mentions:

  • A Farewell to the Good Captain
  • Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch
    • Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch

      Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait and SwitchWhat Is Known (Clean Feed, 2010)

      This is a long-standing Bay Area band that plays Mezzacappa’s compositions, but the same people (including Mezzacappa) also form the band Go-Go Fightmaster, another awesome slice of free jazz.

      (INTERLUDE: Go-Go’s got a gig Sept. 6 at the Make-Out Room. Go!)

      But Go-Go is more slash-and-burn, while Bait and Switch is rooted in the free jazz of Henry Threadgill and Eric Dolphy (two choices among the influences Mezzacappa lists in the liner notes).  Songs here do include untethered free improvising, but many of them are cemented by swingy heads that recall the best of ’60s/’70s jazz.

      I don’t want to make too much of the retro connection, though, because the album doesn’t sound retro. These are modern originals, with composing that stems from Mezzacappa’s exercises in transcribing solos. (Some of these pieces might also be derived from the group’s improvisations; I remember hearing her saying something to that effect.)

      John Finkbeiner’s guitar certainly reaches beyond jazz, especially when he adds distortion and fuzz, as in his solo on “Zzllzzpp.”  Aaron Bennett’s subsequent sax solo on that track might sound friendly and swingy, but it’s accompanied at first by a bumpy bass (Mezzacappa) and drums (Vijay Anderson) rhythm, and later by an evil and raucous set of riffs from the band.

      For cover songs, you’ve got nonobvious choices. Captain Beefheart’s “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” is appropriately stabbing and buzzing, with a head that’s got an infectious rolling swing to it. “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting” is a composition by Steve McCall (drummer of the trio Air, among other groups), turned into a reverent bass solo.

      A couple of quieter tracks later in the album, like “Catalypsoclysmic,” are a treat. Then, near the end, there’s “What Is Known,” where the band really blows off the doors, creating a wail that draws back on the passionate, political style of free jazz.

      Here are two takes on a bright, catchy song called “The Aquarist” — one from Sacramento’s In the Flow festival, and one from a house concert. It’s got a bright, swingy theme and some space for sax and guitar solos. You can also catch early recordings of Bait & Switch songs on Mezzacappa’s Myspace page.

      … And, if you care, I saw this band live about a year ago. Really glad that they found a good home for their first album.