Berne on Piano

Matt Mitchell [playing the music of Tim Berne] — førage (Screwgun, 2017)

mitchell-forageFørage is an album that demands attention. You have to listen actively, letting Matt Mitchell‘s unaccompanied piano guide you down his twisty trails.

The storyline is that Mitchell, who’s been the pianist in Tim Berne‘s band Snakeoil, is interpreting Berne’s compositions, combining multiple songs per track. Blending it all with his own improvisational instincts, Mitchell creates dense, fractal-like structures that carry an elegant air, whether the mood is crystalline and quiet or stern and hammering.

Satoko Fujii’s recent solo album, Invisible Hand, is more direct, sampling a variety of jazz and blues forms. Her music takes plenty of unexpected sharp turns, but you can quickly absorb the moment of whatever passage you’ve dropped the needle onto. førage is a more difficult read.

Both approaches produce admirable results. I loved Invisible Hand, and I’m also savoring the intricate puzzles of førage.

Touches of Berne-ness are recognizable — at the start of “RÄÅY,” or in the recurring riffs that appear in “TRĀÇĘŚ,” — but the overall effect is a melting pot. It’s better that way. If I saw a title like “Simple City,” off the first Snakeoil album, I’d be looking for snippets of the composition.

 
Lacking any such touchstone, the mind is left free to admire Mitchell’s labyrinths. “ŒRBS,” in particular, is darting and densely packed, and it’s exciting when Mitchell lifts the sustain pedal for an unembellished glimpse of his technique. “CLØÙDĒ” lives up to its name on two fronts, starting out gossamer and innocent but building into a relentless storm.

The track not to overlook is “ÀÄŠ,” the long, slow one. The mood is one of high art, with a glacial opening and echoey sustain pedal, and it builds to a passionate, whirling crescendo.

Interestingly, førage seems to be Mitchell’s first solo piano album. His collection of practice etudes, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013), was a duo album with drummer Ches Smith, and his solo outing vapor squint, antique chromatic (Scrapple, 2006) was an extended noise collage.

While førage can be purchased as a download on Bandcamp, Berne considers the physical CD package vital to the experience, with its art by Steve Byram and photos by Berne and engineer Daniel Goodwin. Like Berne, I grew up in the age of LPs and glorious album art, so I would echo his plea: “I hope we can sell these bastards cause I’d really like to do more Screwgun stuff.”

Anna Webber: Strange Shapes and Sounds

Anna Webber’s Simple TrioBinary (Skirl, 2016)

webber-binaryI’m partial to the art of surrealist Yves Tanguy, a contemporary of Salvador Dali’s. Whereas Dali used familiar objects contorted into dreamlike shapes, Tanguy’s worlds were entirely alien. His sense of shape and color pointed to other planes of existence: blobby figures that suggested living beings in sparse landscapes under grimly discolored skies.

You could think of Binary‘s cover art as a hypermodern take on Tanguy. But what really brought the painter to my mind was the track “Tug o’ War,” with the piping register of Anna Webber’s flute and the tick-tock percussion from John Hollenbeck. I think it’s supposed to conjure images of a malevolent toy shop, but what sprang to my mind were the puzzling, misshapen objects of Tanguy’s landscapes.


Strange, unexpected logic blossoms all around Binary, with Webber’s flute and saxophone tracing fluid curves and squiggles. Matt Mitchell’s piano sometimes matches the flow, as on the brief, dancing “Meme,” but in other cases, he goes for a blocky, stormy attack.

day-cut
Yves Tanguy, Day of Intertia (detail).
Source: Melt.

The latter strategy turns Mitchell into an accomplice to John Hollenbeck’s pounding drums, creating some highlight-reel moments during the 14-minute “Impulse Purchase.” Hollenbeck also uses his teletype Claudia Quintet style to lend a crisp, modern air to tracks like “Underhelmed.”

The title track is a particularly nice piece of work, patiently building into waves of soulful saxophone against stormy piano chording. It’s an emotional and severe piece, but also downright pretty.

Then there are the “Rectangle” series of miniatures, each packed into a couple of minutes “Rectangles 3b” is all rigid geometry and stiff lines. “Rectangles 3c” is a strident hurry-up beat, minimalism on caffeine with a skip in its step. “Rectangles 1a,” by contrast, starts slowly and builds into an abrasive climax, a complete short story in its own right. Little windows peeking into different worlds, much like paintings in a gallery.

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil in Berkeley

Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne -- Tim Berne's Snakeoil at Berkeley Arts Festival, May 3, 2015

If you were to ask me what makes Tim Berne’s music so appealing, I’d probably point you to one of his fast themes. That stacatto zig-zag melody, set in a long and ambling thread, has become a signature sound of his, and it catches my ear in an almost rock-music way.

But I also appreciate Berne’s ability to build drama, in carefully developed, looming plotlines. I’ve been familiar with that aspect of his work for a long time — the song “2011” from …theoretically, his 1986 collaboration with Bill Frisell, comes to mind.

It struck me during Berne’s show last Sunday, at Berkeley Arts Festival, that his current Snakeoil band nicely highlights that sense of drama. It’s the chords. With Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith sometimes on vibes (when he’s not rustling or bashing at the drum kit), the compositions get a rich harmonic backdrop, something I’m noticing more now than with previous keyboard bands.

The drama came across as Snakeoil played a set of the longer pieces from the new album, You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015). One passage that particularly struck me had the piano churning out a slow cycle of quarter-note against Oscar Noriega‘s high-pitched blaring on clarinet, the insistent rhythm building tension until the band launched into a majestic composed theme. It’s that theatrical pacing that makes Berne’s longer compositions work.

Oscar Noriega and Ches SmithThe band we saw was the original Snakeoil quartet, without Ryan Ferreira, the guitarist who’s included on the new album. They looked a little tired, and rightfully so. The west-coast swing of their tour had just passed through Los Angeles, where they’d had a gig canceled — without being told until they got to Los Angeles. We tried to make up for it with a warm welcome — maybe 70 or more filling up the storefront gallery of Berkeley Arts.

Matt Mitchell
Matt Mitchell.

Oscar Noriega’s bass clarinet was often hard to hear over the drums, taking away some of the counterpoint that I enjoy in Berne’s writing. But we got to hear plenty of Noriega on plain clarinet, the higher notes sprinting or floating through the music. Some passages highlighting clarinet and vibes were particularly nice.

I think it was on “Embraceable Me” that Matt Mitchell showed off his talent at playing “split” piano, with his two hands doing almost unrelated things. That kind of musical puzzle was the foundation of his album, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013).

Another moment that stood out was the show’s opening — the song “Lost in Redding,” which immediately dived into the kind of fast, pecking melody that I was talking about at the beginning. From that point, we knew it was going to be a fun ride.

Snakeoil

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil plays at Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Monday, Feb. 27, and at Yoshi’s Oakland on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Tim BerneSnakeoil (ECM, 2012)

It’s not as though being on the ECM record label was going to change Tim Berne’s music, but I had to wonder. ECM has a sound, a particular aura that’s built Manfred Eicher a worldwide fan base, even though ECM’s range is wider than some realize. (Would you have submitted Prezens to the label that did a CD of Bach viola da gamba songs?)

Even when Eicher doesn’t produce a recording — as on Michael Formanek’s The Rub and Spare Change (reviewed here), he takes control of the final mixing. You don’t escape the sound.

So, while a track like “Not Sure” kicks off with those driving, bouncing composed lines that Berne is famous for, you’ve also got “Simple City,” which opens the album with Matt Mitchell on careful piano, letting the notes absorb into the resonant air. It’s like slowly crackling ice, with tiny dissonances here and there for color. Ches Smith starts adding some percussion (timpani, whoa) and Berne finally enters on sax — and the feeling has changed from that icy ECM specialty to the warm-and-comforting (but somehow still icy) ECM specialty.

Tim Berne. Source: Kuumbwa Jazz; click to go there. Photo by Robert Lewis.

Eicher is particularly good at recording drums. I can really savor Smith’s work all over this album, especially the cymbals, whether it’s him splashing about or that clean tapping of wood-on-metal. The resonant room plays well with Oscar Noriega‘s clarinet, too, especially early in “Yield.” He’s going crazy while the band plays a gentle, pulsing rhythm, and the little resonances of the room crop up when Noriega takes a breath or delivers a long, keening note — nice studio-provided touches.

The composing is Berne all over; the first instants of “Scanners” will tell you that, with its quick-paced theme stacking interlocked parts on top of each other. Snakeoil is full of those rock-out moments juxtaposed with loose improvisation or slow, contemplative stretches. The ending of “Simple City” is slow and drawn-out, reminding me of the cooldown endings to some of Berne’s half-hour Bloodcount suites.

None of the tracks is blazingly fast, but “Scanners” moves at a good clip. We’ll call that the hit single (at 7:21, it’s also the shortest song). And “Spectacle” builds to a big, stormy finish. On the prettier side, “Spare Parts” includes a gentle stretch while Berne solos warmly over a calm piano-and-clarinet line. It’s Berne-like and ECM-like, and it’s got a cozy feeling that plays well with the album’s rainy-day cover.

“Scanners” and part of “Spectacle” can be heard via the Screwgun Records page, where you can also order Snakeoil. And if you’re wondering whatever happened to that Los Totopos album Berne recorded — this is it; they just changed the band name.

Tweeting Tim Berne

screwgun2Tim Berne, or at least a representative of his Screwgun Records label, is doing the Twitter thing. Tweeters can start following @screwgunrecords for updates. (*)

Tim Berne’s Twitter feed will tell you there’s an Adobe Probe clip to be heard, over on Facebook.

That’s Berne’s latest band. Mary Halvorson’s Web page lists the personnel as:

So. Berne and Speed get reunited from the old Bloodcount days. (They’d reunited last year already for a few shows of all new material — this one, for instance.) Halvorson is the new critics’ fave, as I’ve noted here, and you can find quite a bit about her on the blog for promotions outfit Improvised Communications (Try this WordPress search.) Hebert is part of Halvorson’s much-lauded trio. Cleaver’s an A-list drummer, of course.

The Facebook clip, “Duck,” is heavy on the horns, but the piano and guitar get a good moment later on. Sounds like a lot of energy. Matt Mitchell has a brief description on his blog. This could be a very cool band.

(*) OK, Twitter rant. Yes, I use Twitter, and I enjoy it. Yeah, it’s frivolous. Some people talk about how the 140-character limit forces “brevity and clarity,” which is partly true, but it also forces shallowness: You can’t convey deep ideas or carry on long conversations. Perfect for a society that’s being taught, by technology and TV, that it’s OK to treat life with impatience and self-absorption.

Anyway, for delivering short notes to lots of people, or for seeking quick info among your friends and semi-acquaintances, Twitter is a pretty good system. Commercial interests are taking notice awfully quickly, though, and Twitter will someday be under the gun to make actual money. I predict in three years it’ll be a platform for coupons and advertising deals (a.k.a. spam), so we should enjoy the fun while it lasts.

UPDATE, 2/4/09: This is a particularly egregious example of what I mean.  But I think the real danger lies in something like Magpie.