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A Fireside Chat With Tim Berne

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Has jazz lost its way? Those that have seen better days have told tales of how there used to be anticipation for the next Miles album. That advanced desire seems all but removed in today's commerically perverted aristocracy. So iconoclasts (e.g., William Parker, Ken Vandermark, Jason Moran, Dave Douglas) are the milk of kindness. An archetype of promise is the dramatic evolution of Tim Berne (unedited and in his own words). And although insecurities regarding the character of modern improvised music remain, there is hope.

All ABOUT JAZZ: Let's start from the beginning.

TIM BERNE: I wasn't that young, but I was a big fan of music and jazz. I used to go to a million concerts. I used to drive from upstate New York to New York for a night to hear three sets at the Vanguard and then drive home. I became so into it, sort of by fluke, I came across a saxophone really cheaply and decided to buy it to see if I could get involved in a more hands on way. It wasn't enough to just be a fan.

AAJ: Fans of your music are well aware of your affinity for the late Julius Hemphill, but for those not in the know, how profound has Hemphill been in your maturation?

TB: I was lucky enough. I bought this record (Dogon A.D.) by accident because I thought it looked cool and I recognized Philip Wilson's name. And then when I heard it, it fused a lot of the things that I was listening to because I would be listening to soul music and then on the other side, I would be listening to some pretty extreme avant-garde jazz. It was the first record that I heard that captured the excitement of both of those things. There was something very raw about it. It was very soulful and emotional, but also pretty adventurous. I didn't know much at the time, but the writing seemed pretty original to me. He was using a cello. It was really interesting. When I started playing, it crossed my mind that maybe this guy was around and maybe I could take lessons. I didn't really know where he lived. I knew he was from St. Louis, but I found out through Anthony Braxton, who I took a lesson with, that Julius lived in Brooklyn and he gave me his number. I had seen him, but didn't know it was him because I had never seen a picture of him. I somehow got into a Lester Bowie recording session and there was somebody conducting and I thought it was Oliver Nelson (laughing) because I had never seen a picture of him. It turned out to be Julius. He was a pretty scary guy - a really nice guy, but big and had this really deep voice and could be pretty intimidating. I called him and asked him if I could take lessons. What attracted me to him was just because he was one of those guys that if someone told him he couldn't do something, it was the first thing he tried to do. I have a similar nature. I am always going up against authority. Julius was one of those guys. He was a super creative guy and he inspired you to want to be different. Most teachers will show you things that will help you assimilate and then you decide what you want to do. With Julius, it was more like, you might as well start figuring yourself out now. He never discouraged me from doing things that I wasn't prepared to do. At the same time, he wasn't overwhelming me with compliments, but he was super positive. He took it seriously. I wasn't paying him a lot of money. In those days, it was twenty bucks a lesson. It wasn't like he was getting rich, but he was into it. We would spend hours together. Just the fact that I was a big fan made him feel good at a time when not much was happening for him or for a lot of guys. He was really generous. He was just such a creative guy and such an interesting person. It automatically inspired you to want to do what he was doing.

AAJ: Having recorded with Vinny Golia, Roberto Miranda, and Nels and Alex Cline, you have a familiarity with the music of Los Angeles.

TB: I haven't been there in so long, but I know what Alex and Nels are doing and Vinny Golia's doing. I know Jeff Gauthier is doing a lot of stuff - promoting and starting a label and getting gigs together for people. I learned a lot about self-sufficiency from those guys and doing your own thing and not waiting for others. It is good to see Nels getting out there more, outside of L.A. I learned a lot from those guys. I just haven't played there in so long, maybe five years or something. It is vital as anywhere else and has the same problems, no place to play, no money.

AAJ: Operating your own label, Screwgun, affords you the comfort of documentation without repercussion.

TB: The downside is all the busy work, but there is a big upside because you have control over what you're doing. For me, I do it by choice. I'm not doing it because I can't release records for other people. It brings a certain amount of money in that I don't have to go out on the road or go do a bunch of fifty dollar gigs to make. It gives me control over what I'm doing. If I have a record out on Screwgun, I will sell it for the rest of my life. Whereas, if I do a record for JMT or Columbia or Soul Note, it is a pretty safe bet that after a year, you will never see it again or have to look really hard to get it or have to go to my website (www.screwgunrecords.com). That is probably the best reason for doing it because I just got really tired of making records that I was proud of and then some kid asks me five years later, "I heard you made a record with this group, where is it?" And I have no idea.

AAJ: It is certainly a strange phenomenon, not limited to improvised music, but music labels consistently delete material from their catalogs, further frustrating the artist's ability to develop a recorded legacy.

TB: It isn't necessary all out of print, but the label is on to the new record. A lot of these records are in print, but I defy anyone to find those records in the stores. If you can't find them in New York or L.A., I'm pretty sure you're not going to find them in the Mid-West. So just to have a website where everyone can go and get my stuff forever and I notice that every week, I sell a few Bloodcounts. There is no record that doesn't at least move a few copies a month and that is really gratifying. The JMT stuff, I would get so excited after I recorded it and the record came out and then it would be just all downhill from there.

AAJ: Not to mention the period during the acquisition and merger of Polygram to Universal when JMT titles were pulled from store shelves.

TB: Yeah, and now it is being reissued, but it is almost the same scenario over again. It is hard to believe, which is why I bought a bunch of them and I am selling them myself. It is bizarre.

AAJ: Are you going to revisit Bloodcount?

TB: I don't know, Fred. I thought about doing some gigs just for fun. I've had a lot of really good bands that I have really enjoyed and then when I move on, it just seems like it is time to move on. I don't think it is a bad thing. My ears change. My interests change. I just get different ideas. That instrumentation, there is only so much I could come up with. I sort of hit the wall because we were so prolific and we were also playing so much. I just ran out of ideas. It is tempting because, as with all my bands, they usually get really successful after I stop doing it. It is tempting and I love those guys. It would be fun, but I really don't have the time just to do it for fun. You always have people coming up to you asking, "What happened to Bloodcount?" At some point, I am sure I will get people asking me, "Are you still doing Science Friction?"

AAJ: Science Friction recently recorded two releases, one on your Screwgun label and a live double album for Thirsty Ear.

TB: I've been playing with those guys in various combinations for a long time. Craig, even, for two or three years because we had the trio. It was something that was always in the back of my mind because Ducret lives in Paris, it is not so easy to pull off. I had Marc come over. We did four gigs and then we did the record. Essentially, I did it to make a record, but I was also thinking in terms of the future because I am always thinking of ways to have a relatively small group and get a big sound and with guitar and keyboards, you can get a pretty big thing going. Recently, I've actually been doing it with two guitarists, David Torn. I like the electronic orchestral sound you can get. There is a certain power with the electric stuff that appeals to me, the texture of it. Also, not having a bass, when you want it to be there, there is a big hole, which gives Tom a lot of room, which I think is really interesting. The sound can be thick without having six people there. There is a certain kind of articulation that you get on those instruments that you don't get on woodwinds. There is a certain percussive quality that I really like. I like both albums. I was not really trying to document the live sound. It was our last gig on our tour. There were probably a couple of hundred people in the audience.

AAJ: Why haven't you visited the left coast?

TB: I haven't been invited recently. I would love to. To actually get out there with a band, you have to book a tour and that is a pretty daunting prospect. With all the other things that are going on, I just don't have the time to do it myself. I have to pick my spots, but I love playing out there. I love going out West to play. The guy from Monterey was at our gig a couple of weeks ago and wanted us to go out there and play, but unless I have a tour, it will probably be impossible. I could do it, but my focus has been on writing and working on other things.

AAJ: And the future?

TB: I just finished this huge project in England, which involved nine musicians and I wrote a thirty minute piece for that. If you want to hear it, it is on the BBC website. Next year, I have another Science Friction tour, but I am adding Herb Robertson.

Visit Tim Berne on the web at www.screwgunrecords.com .

Photo Credit
Claudio Casanova


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