Posts tagged ‘tim berne’

The Art of Process

Kris DavisDuopoly (Pyroclastic, 2016)

duopolyI wanted my first listen to Kris Davis‘ Duopoly to be an uninterrupted viewing of the 80-minute video of the performances (available online or as a DVD sold with the physical CD). It’s not as if the act of filming these studio duets altered the music. It’s more that I wanted to get into the spirit of the project.

Duopoly comprises 16 duets with eight musicians. Some Davis knows well, but none have previously recorded with her. Each musician took three hours in the studio to record one composition (most often one of Davis’) and one improvisation. Topping it off is the mirror symmetry of the track order, which I was so pleased to hear about last summer — the album features each of the eight musicians playing a composition, then the same eight, in reverse order, doing improvisations.

To me, that whole structure is part of the art here. It isn’t just that Davis recorded 16 duets (the partners being two guitarists, two pianists, two drummers, two reedists). What I wanted to savor was the whole “shape” of the project — the constraints, the spontaneity, and the trajectory of the overall process. Certainly I enjoyed the music, too, but what I savored was the overall experiment.

The recordings are pure, with no rehearsals, overdubs, or mixing — although, sensibly, multiple takes were allowed. On the video side, the amount of camera movement is minimal. Davis is recorded by a fixed camera, while the guest musician is filmed by videographer Mimi Chakarova, using a handheld. Not every track works for me, but I think that fit the spirit of the rules.

One of the most fascinating visuals is “Eronel,” the Monk composition, played in duet with Billy Drummond. Davis starts off with an improvisation, and it’s up to Drummond to trust his ears, decide when to come in, and listen for the composition. The same is true of their improvisation, but with one constraint fewer. Being able to watch Drummond’s facial expressions, seeing him tease out his process, is a treat.

davis drummond cutAt times, though, he seems to have psyched himself out. I found myself aching for him to cut loose in a few spots. His improv duet takes time to get going but really cooks when it does, when he settles on an all-toms groove.

It’s possible that Drummond did cut loose, on alternate takes — or, maybe restraint was his strategy all along. Or, maybe it’s my burden to warm up to that strategy. The quiet tapping at the start of “Eronel” really clicked with me on a second listen, without the video (opening a whole other realm of discussion), and provides a healthy contrast to Marcus Gilmore’s hard asphalt swing on “Dig and Dump.”

The dual-piano tracks likewise complement one another. Davis’ composed duet with Craig Taborn, pensive and abstract, is followed by the direct jazz attack of Angelica Sanchez. I like that the Taborn track comes first in the album’s sequencing. It does get fiery but builds slowly and abstractly to that point; its introduction would have been an odd full stop had it followed Sanchez’s piece.

Sometimes, the only way to tell which parts are composed is to watch Davis’ eyes on the video. Even then, you can’t always tell, but based on that cue, “Trip Dance for Tim” has her playing an intricate theme filled with insane intervallic leaps. Tim Berne’s alto sax soloing is a delight during that phase, and eventually both are playing a layered composition that does resemble some of Berne’s two-horn work with bands like Snakeoil or Bloodcount.

berneThe Tim Berne improvisation comprises two phases: Berne madly screeching against stony chords, and Berne playing a tumult of notes against Davis’ rapid-fire blips, sounding like an acoustic sci-fi computer.

How about the guitars? Davis’ composition “Prairie Eyes” seems very much tailored for Bill Frisell, with Davis laying down scrabbling minimal riff against his sparse notes, or putting big-sky chords behind a very Frisellian melody. It’s an attractive piece with a haunting coda. “Surf Curl,” for Julian Lage, starts out percussive and skittery, building into a steady drizzle.

Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” played with Don Byron, is the halfway point, the last of the compositions. The piece ends sublimely, making for a satisfying transition into the improv half of the album/video. That Moebius twist of a transition, as Davis’ producer calls it, is equally sublime, opening quietly with Byron’s clarinet like a flowing brook and Davis playing gentle dewdrop notes.

Davis has posted the entire video online: http://krisdavis.net/duopoly-full-video … and you can catch it segment-by-segment on Vimeo.

April 29, 2017 at 12:05 pm Leave a comment

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.”

February 12, 2017 at 10:41 am 2 comments

Kris Davis’ New Symmetry

Maybe it’s because I was a math major, but I do love to geek out about things like this:

Pianist Kris Davis‘ new album — Duopoly, due out on Sept. 30 — consists of duets with eight different musicians. Sixteen tracks: one apiece with each partner, followed by eight more with the same players in reverse order. It’s a palindrome.

The album’s front cover helps you visualize it all. The tracks start with guitarist Bill Frisell (upper left) and, I’m guessing, work their way “down” the left column, through Craig Taborn, Billy Drummond and Tim Berne. Then they go back up the right-hand column to guitarist Julian Lage. The next eight tracks reverse that sequence.

duopoly

Oh, but it gets better. The first eight tracks are based on compositions, while the last eight are improvisations. And you might notice that the the eight duo partners consist of two players representing each of four instruments: guitar (Frisell, Lage), Other Piano (Taborn, Angelica Sanchez), drums (Drummond, Marcus Gilmore), and woodwinds (Berne, Don Byron). It’s symmetries upon symmetries.

There are times when I’ll buy the physical form of an album — vinyl or CD — because it feels like the packaging is part of the whole experience. In this case, I’m counting geeking out on the overall concept as part of the experience. It’s a good one so far.

To top it all off, they filmed these sessions, so Duopoly is a DVD as well.

To help promote the album, Davis and Taborn are hitting the road for a series of two-piano showcases, including a stop in Los Angeles for the Angel City Jazz Festival and a show at Oakland’s Mills College. I’ve reviewed solo albums from each of them (here and here), and a duet performance seems like it would be something to savor.

Here’s the itinerary for those duo shows:

September 30 — Firehouse 12 – New Haven, CT
October 1 — Music Center at Washington University – St. Louis, MO
October 2 — Roulette – Brooklyn, NY
October 3 — Kennedy Center – Washington DC
October 5 — Constellation – Chicago, IL
October 6 — Britton Recital Hall – Ann Arbor, MI
October 7 — Wexner Center – Columbus, OH
October 8 — Zipper Hall presented by Angel City Jazz Festival – Los Angeles, CA
October 9 — Mills College – Oakland, CA
October 10 — UC San Diego – San Diego, CA
October 11 — Poncho Concert Hall presented by Earshot Jazz Festival – Seattle, WA
October 13 — Bucknell University – Lewisburg, PA

August 26, 2016 at 5:11 pm Leave a comment

The OKO Leap of Faith

OKOI Love You Computer Mountain (Diatribe, 2014)

oko-loveBack in March, Tim Berne got invited to Dublin to play with the electronica band OKO. Asked by the Irish Times about his musical plans for the gigs, he said he had no idea. OKO hadn’t revealed a strategy, and it sounded like Berne had been given only surface details about what the band even sounded like.

But the Irish Times article dropped a few hints. Oko plays with electronic and acoustic instruments. They’re experimental and cross-genre — well, yeah, the press loves to put those labels on bands that turn out to be bland and monochromatic.

Ah, what the heck. In the spirit of the Berne concert, I downloaded I Love You Computer Mountain and gave it a shot.

Turns out the Irish Times wasn’t far off.

okoposter“Shoehorns & Axelgrease” opens the album with a nine-minute tour of the quartet’s collective digs. It starts mysteriously, with cavernous gloopy noises accompanying light ambient chords and faint electronic blips. The music eventually surges into a sprawling, cymbal-splashing slow groove, then takes a sharp turn into a kind of prog-jazz jam of electric piano, snappy rhythmic bass, and colorful drumming.

“Under Over” brings a madcap beat lead by rubbery bass, over which Darragh O’Kelly jabs out some funky electric piano before switching into a scrambling, odd-time-signature riff. We’ve gone from oh-so-hip electronics to a good old prog/fusion festival.

You could describe the overall album as “chill,” but it gets a lot of mileage out of some hard-driven bass and drums. The former comes from Shane Latimer on eight-string guitar — a compelling, lively sound, even when he’s playing in linear eighth-note pulses. Shane O’Donovan lays down solid beats and colorful fills on the drum kit.

O’Kelly’s keyboards, principally electric piano, provide the lead voice and are responsible for defining mood. It’s all augmented by samples and whatnot from DJackulate for a touch of hip atmosphere.

Tracks transition neatly into one another for a kind of cerebral dancehall experience. You travel from room to room like one of those amusement park rides — through the reggae-infused cooldown of “Axelgrease;” the impossibly slow fog of “Oblong,” with Latimer laying down some other-wordly guitar against blurry gray backgrounds; and the snappy yet low-key yet spastic “Magnet Paste.” It winds down sublimely with a pretty tune called “Unbelievable Sushi.”

Tim Berne would be an obvious match for the more abstract tracks, but I’d bet it was amazing to hear him on the more locked-in and composed pieces as well. He’s no stranger to more conventional music, after all — check out his work with bassist Hugo Carvalhais’ band a few years ago. If you happened to catch any of the shows, I’d love to hear what you thought.

July 9, 2016 at 12:15 am Leave a comment

Berne-Watching

Tim Berne’s SnakeoilYou’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015)

berne-youveBy the time I had opened Snakeoil’s You’ve Been Watching Me, I had seen the band twice, including one show that ran through all the major tracks on this, their third CD. So I wasn’t expecting any surprises — but I’d forgotten that this session adds guitarist Ryan Ferreira.

He blends in well. He’s often featured playing the unison lead, adding a new color to the themes. And sometimes he adds David Torn-like effects, as in the distant rumble he builds during the ominous ending to “Embraceable Me,” with its one-note piano chime holding the tension for the mad group solo to follow.

Tim Berne is an artist who churns through bands and compositions rapidly, always anxious to move on to the next thing. It’s nice, then, when something sticks. As with the Bloodcount quartet, it’s been good to see Snakeoil get time to settle, to find its own equilibrium.

“Comfortable” probably isn’t a word Berne wants to hear, but yes, I’ve grown comfortable with this band. It doesn’t feel stale, and the addition of Ferreira adds a fresh challenge without disbalancing the band’s chemical equation. But for me as a listener, what’s nice about “comfortable” is that this third Snakeoil album is heightening my awareness of what I like about this band.

Oscar Noriega‘s clarinet brings a chamber-music delicacy to those long, quiet stretches. He’s especially good during a long, spare stretch of “Small World in a Small Town,” playing opposite Matt Mitchell‘s piano and Ches Smith on vibes and drums.

Mitchell’s piano can play the role of a hard, punishing bassline, but his higher calling here is to add another dimension of tangle and complexity to Berne’s tangly, complex composing. Compositions such as “Small World in a Small Town,” “Embraceable Me,” and “Semi-Self Detatched” (excerpted below) feature cross-current melodies played by separate factions of the band — something Berne did with Bloodcount, too, but it feels like he has more options and more density with this band.


We enjoyed Ches Smith’s music here in the Bay Area for years, so it’s not surprising that he has an intuitive grasp for what this band needs. His drums are a catalyst for building the tension leading to those big, dramatic composed segments, while the vibraphones and timpani let him add to those quieter stretches.

And then there’s Ferreira’s guitar, filling a role similar to Marc Ducret‘s part-time role with Bloodcount: sometimes doubling up the melodies, sometimes adding rugged, scratchy effects to the mix. Over the quick, heavyhanded patter of “False Impressions,”he cuts a nice solo, choosing a skinny, echoey sound, from the Robert Fripp end of the spectrum. And he gets center-stage on the brief title track, a solo-guitar composition reminiscent of the Ducret pieces on Berne’s album, The Sevens.

Above: Snakeoil, minus Ferreira, performing “Embraceable Me” at The Stone.

November 29, 2015 at 6:11 am 1 comment

The Tim Berne & Steve Byram Book

Tim Berne and Steve BryamSpare (Screwgun*, 2015)

Tim Berne & Steve Byram -- Spare (2015)

Photo lifted from Screwgun Records.

My first real foray into avant-garde jazz was Low Life by Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, and part of the adventure was the late-night atmosphere of the CD booklet’s artwork — not just the cover, but Steve Byram’s odd scribblings and abstract collages, and Robert Lewis’ obscure black-and-white portraits of the band.

Berne and Byram have collaborated for nearly 30 years now. They met during Berne’s brief tenure as a major-label recording artist, with Columbia, and have been inseparable since.

Now they’ve released a small coffee-table book together, an objet d’art, as NY Times critic Nate Chinen aptly calls it. True to its name, Spare comes in a brown cardboard sleeve, reminiscent of Berne’s first DIY CDs with his Screwgun Records label.

The illustrations inside the 100-page book live up to the name as well. Byram’s scribbles, hand-drawn or computer-generated, are etched onto blank backgrounds, or occasionally onto stark pages of color or texture. (I’m showing black-and-white pages here, but the book does have plenty of color.)

Berne’s photos — a surreal travelogue — favor dark shadows, and a common theme is rain or fog seen through windows of cars, trains, and planes. Many of them seem to be long-exposure pictures taken on a phone or a point-and-shoot camera, with the inevitable hand wiggles adding a touch of surreal narrative. If you’ve seen the covers to his albums Snakeoil and Shadow Man, you know what you’re getting into. He’s also taken several photos of bandmates, and one of a peeling-paint building that reminds me of the neighborhood near Les Instants Chavirés outside Paris.

Steve Byram drawing, from the book

A plate from Spare.

The quietude of the photos is set against the sometimes jarring design of Byram’s drawings, which often feature humanoid figures built from crazy shapes, using impulsive scribbling to fill the spaces. Randomly, several of the drawings seem to be of wedding couples.

Here, I should make a horrible confession: I’ve never been that much into Byram’s art. I appreciate it — and as I said, it set the right mood for that first listen to Low Life. But I have to admit, a lot of his drawings have that look of five seconds and a cocktail napkin. I enjoy abstract art, but I’m not immune to that lingering doubt: Could my kids have done this?

And yet, I love having a book full of the stuff. Byram creates an unsettling little universe. Touches of humor and sarcasm are in there, and a sense of playfulness. It all seems to tap a common theme, something busy and baffling, with touchstones of familiarity underneath layers of a language I haven’t deciphered.

Actually, maybe that’s the point. I guess I like Byram’s work more than I knew.

The accompanying CD is a live recording of the Snakeoil quartet, mixed mastered by David Torn. [Thanks to Berne himself for the correction.] “Spare Parts” and the suite “OC-DC,” from previous Snakeoil albums, get extended treatments here. The new piece “Lamé” gets explosive after a soothing, twisty composition led by sax and vibes. And the CD opens with “Deadbeat Beyoncé,” a new long-form piece that features a sweeping classical-piano display by Matt Mitchell. Elsewhere on that piece, Oscar Noriega takes a quieter, spare solo that sounds like a different kind of classical — a modern piece, with clean lines and unhurried demeanor.

The disc, which I think is titled Arguis Oleum, has that “live” fidelity but is a welcome addition, almost in the vein of the three-CD Unwound set from Bloodcount (which will always be a pinnacle of Berne’s catalogue). It’s a nice collector’s item.

(* This is the spot where I normally put the “record label” or book publisher. There kind of isn’t one here, this being a one-time project, but you can order the book through Screwgun.)

October 10, 2015 at 1:14 pm 1 comment

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.

May 10, 2015 at 8:07 pm Leave a comment

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