Posts tagged ‘tim berne’

Back Pages #4: Tim Berne’s Bloodcount

berne-bloodcount(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

I might have been the first mail-order customer for Tim Berne’s Screwgun Records, only because I couldn’t accept an invitation to drop by his house.

Screwgun is Berne’s second record label. He’d cut his teeth on Empire Records starting in 1979, having learned from the example of Julius Hemphill. In 1996, he was ready to give it another go.

He started with Bloodcount Unwound, a gloriously DIY effort: three CDs in a cardboard package with a gloriously insane fold-up card that combines credits, track listings, and a vegan cookie recipe by Jim Black. Artist Steve Byram‘s fingerprints are all over this thing.

bloodcount

I was in New York some weeks prior to Unwound‘s release, and I struck up a conversation with Berne after a gig — at the old Knitting Factory, I think. He was talking about getting a mail-order label started, with a live Bloodcount album as the first release. “But you know,” he said, “you could just drop by my house tomorrow and pick one up.”

Two problems. First: Berne lives in Brooklyn. Being new to the New York experience, I was nervous about wandering outside Manhattan, not out of snobbery, but because we didn’t have GPS devices and cellphone maps back then. Stepping a few blocks off the grid to find the Knitting Factory was disorienting enough; I didn’t think I stood a chance at navigating Brooklyn.

More importantly, I had a flight to catch the next day. I theoretically had time, but — I would have to find Berne’s house in one try, then find a cab (I was savvy enough to assume Brooklyn wouldn’t be swarming with them), and hope for forgiving traffic along the slog to JFK.

I honestly considered it. But with my trip nearing its end, the grown-up in me took over. I declined.

I don’t recall what happened next, but most likely, Tim provided me instructions for mailing a check. (Berne had no website at the time, and online credit-card processing wasn’t in the hands of most DIY types anyway.) Some time later, Bloodcount Unwound found its way to our little townhouse in San Jose.

Unwound is the best of the Bloodcount albums, capturing the band at their fiery peak. “These recordings were not produced!” the liner notes proudly proclaim. (In the photo above, it’s at the top, near the center.) Berne essentially bootlegged his own concerts with a DAT recorder — another practice that’s commonplace today but seemed forward-thinking in 1996.

The new tracks on the album were a treat, but I also enjoyed hearing older pieces like “What Are the Odds?” and “Bro’ball” (a combination of “Broken” and “Lowball” from the 1993 trio album Loose Cannon). You get all the subtleties of Bloodcount’s long improvisational phases as well as moments of sheer, oversaturating power, particularly from Jim Black’s drums. Check out “Mr. Johnson’s Blues:”

 
This is what happens when a band gets familiar with each other in a good way. If you want to learn why this band remains so popular, Unwound  is the place to look.

My recollection is that Unwound‘s original run of 2,000 sold out, and Berne eventually printed more. DIY CDs were looking like a promising business model for independent musicians.

But for Berne and other musicians, that dream would be chipped away in the coming years, first by piracy (despite what pop-music fans seem to think, “touring” isn’t a substitute for selling records) and more recently by the paltry royalties of streaming services. Berne found haven in the form of an ECM contract — in fact, his Snakeoil band has a new album that I’m overdue to pick up.

Screwgun, despite tougher odds, lives on; screwgunrecords.com remains Berne’s home page, where he still sells CDs and now offers MP3s of some out-of-print titles. (Unwound isn’t among them yet, but you can find it on Bandcamp.) The label recently produced a Matt Mitchell solo CDForage, and a Berne/Byram art book called Spare. Long live DIY.

December 17, 2017 at 11:26 am Leave a comment

Tim Berne (and Paul Motian) in 1983

Tim BerneMy First Tour: Live in Brussels (Screwgun, 2017)

berne-firstIt’s a lo-fi cassette recording but wholly satisfying, and a nice little slice of history.

My First Tour is a 1983 recording that Tim Berne is giving away on Bandcamp. It’s in the same spirit as the Unwound triple-CD that documented Berne’s Bloodcount quartet in concert (more on that in a later post).

“Why am I doing this?” Berne writes. “Because I think this has a side of Paul Motian that maybe isn’t well documented and worth hearing.”

True. Motian is often raucous and aggressive in this session, capped by his solo at the excerpt of “Mutant of Alberan.”

 
It’s not as if Motian hasn’t played loudly before. I remember him having a similarly dynamic solo on Keith Jarrett’s The Survivors’ Suite. That “Alberan” solo gets outright vicious, though. You get to hear the rawness behind the performance, and that’s an aspect that elevates this recording, as it did with Unwound.

Elsewhere, Herb Robertson delivers a tremendous trumpet solo on “Flies,” going absolutely nuts, backed by Motian’s high-speed brushwork. And if you want to hear Motian in a more contemplative mood, there’s “No Idea,” which lingers pensively around Motian’s sense of open non-timekeeping.

“Tin Ear” is one of the songs that I don’t think ever made it onto an album, and it’s a blast. After a swingy start, Berne kicks into fast free jazz, with Motian’s furious rhythm. That track has another raucous Motian solo as well.

I enjoy hearing alternate versions of tunes, so this collection is a treat from that standpoint as well. There’s more where this came from, on the 5-CD Empire Box that documents Berne’s early albums with Robertson, Motian, Alex Cline, Nels Cline, Vinny Golia, and more. Discs 4 and 5 are on Bandcamp.

UPDATE 11/22: Discs 1 through 3 are now on Bandcamp as well: The Five-Year Plan, 7X, and Spectres.

November 4, 2017 at 11:24 am 1 comment

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

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