Once you've heard a couple of hours of Tim Berne's music, you can usually identify something new as his within just a few seconds. That distinctive character has something to do with his bittersweet alto playing, but it's also related to the way foreground and background layers interweave over time, the way his snaky melodies uncurl, and the simmering tensionoften without much release.
Berne is never easy listening whatever the setting, but his incredibly rich and personal music rewards the effort. Over the course of the thirty or so releases he has stacked up in various configurations, he has accrued a body of nearly flawless work. His Hardcell trio, a cooperative venture with Craig Taborn (piano/keyboards) and Tom Rainey (drums), has put out three records over the past five years. (Hardcell is three quarters of Science Friction, with guitarist Marc Ducret, another group that benefits from David Torn's work behind the console.)
Feign is the first all-acoustic release by this trio, "recorded with surprising restraint," as the liners indicate, and it's as good a place as any to dip in. The quietest moments on the disc come on the third piece, "Brokelyn," which starts off with abstract brush and stick work by Rainey and leads into a slow, deliberate, nearly unison melody statement by Berne and Taborn. As time progresses, they untwist and shoot off into a parallel exploration punctuated by oddly timed snare rolls.
As the trio gathers momentum, dark clouds begin swirling overhead, Rainey starts booming, and Berne shoots lines into the air. Then about five minutes in, Taborn leans into an off-kilter swing and the pace picks up a couple of notches. We're back into a much more energetic group interaction marked by periods of exploration and an eventual return to a repeated theme, then out.
The rest of the pieces mostly occupy a tense, shifty mid-tempo zone. Berne's alto playing develops in a linear fashion, referring to motifs and devolving them piecewise in a sometimes methodical, other times drastic fashionbut the implied harmony, especially when Taborn takes a more aggressive stance, lends momentum and leads to interesting contrasts. Rainey's a quirky, versatile drummer who can serve up funky grooves (as on the grooving opener) but tends to prefer exploring color, accent, polyrhythm, and melody.
These guys have spent so much time working together that the idiosyncrasies and nuances of their shared explorations develop naturally and in an unforced manner, no matter how self-conscious their music may be at times. Feign is wonderful, beautiful stuff that rewards repeat play.
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Personnel: Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Tom Rainey: drums; Craig Taborn: piano.