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Tim Berne: Superstitious Pragmatist

By Published: January 23, 2006
AAJ: "Trading On All Fours is the first piece on the CD and it's great. There's some dense improv in it, but I find it very accessible. One reason is that beside the overall group interplay, you're endlessly capable of generating melody. In your own way, you're one of the most straight-ahead horn players around. But when you've got this three-way communication, it's endlessly interesting to listen to who's driving the car, as it were, at each point. In the first minutes it's you, your horn melodies are the rhythmic center besides the melodic one. But after a drum-and-bass break, you can hear the other two taking control at different points.

TB: I think that's what attracted me to that situation. I just noticed I did certain things that I can't recreate when it's my band and I'm writing music. I just don't do it. There are these zones that I love to play in that I can't somehow initiate in my own bands without there being something kind of artificial about it. And that's why I like playing with Drew's band; it's the same thing. He kind of puts me in a whole different setting that I really like, but, again, can't initiate in my own groups. I'd have to really do something that I don't hear in myself. But when Drew does it, it's great; it's so natural. That band's so great for me. But when we do Paraphrase gigs [both Berne and Rainey play in Gress's group] it's so different; it's not the same three guys. Which is hilarious.

AAJ: A piece like "Trading On All Fours has, to me, a great thematic unity. It's a successful improvisation. But when I say that, I'm describing reality after the fact. Is there a notion of staying on topic when you're improvising like this?

TB: Absolutely. I think so. I mean, we all write music. We're all in bands where composition is not just the written music. So I'm always composing. It's not a big mystery what I'm doing playingwise. I'm really playing thematically; even if it's super-abstract, I'm always remembering what we did and where we're going, and kind of relating whatever ideas of composition and drama and tension and release that I do in writing. The thing is, you've got two other people in the conversation, so that's what makes it interesting—how everyone else interprets your decisions. And you're making those decisions really quickly. So it's great when everybody's kind of ignoring each other in a very convincing way. That can be really interesting. The key to it is just being assertive with whatever you're doing. So if you're ignoring each other—as long as it's a convincing argument, I think it's going to be effective.

AAJ: No mumbling.

TB: Yeah. Or if you're second-guessing yourself because you didn't come up with the same idea at the same time, then it sounds like that. It sounds like you're following. On the first two Paraphrase recordings [Visitation Rites, 1997 and Please Advise, 1999], which I really liked, things developed a little slower, I would say. On this one, what was funny was that we were making these really incisive decisions really quickly, on the spot—it would just happen. It was a lot more concise than it usually is, and I don't know why. I think it might have been that it was, I think, a one-set gig where there was another band. So probably subconsciously, you don't want to play too long. Also, we had just done a gig with Drew, playing completely different music, a night or two before that, so we were just in a frame of mind where we weren't even thinking. I just remember everything happening really fast. The way we started was just like, boom—we were just right into it. And a lot of times we'll start and kind of hunt around for about five minutes to see where it's going. This one, I just remember feeling pretty comfortable right away—probably because we had just done some gigs.

AAJ: It's because of the way that first piece begins that made me ask whether you talk this stuff over before you play.

TB: Yeah, I know. That was pretty cool. I hate to say it, but that's probably unusual. A lot of times we're looking around like, "who's going to start? I don't want to go first. There's more of a sheepish kind of hesitation.

AAJ: Well, also, for some pieces what's good is how they develop. The second piece on the CD has that coalescing quality and that's good music—but there is something striking about that first one.

TB: And that's a classic case—on the second piece, you're reacting to the first piece. It's only natural to start the second one that way after all that intensity; that's what I mean by thinking compositionally or logically. It's a certain kind of logic—not everyone thinks that's logical. There's another school that might think, well, just go all the way all the time. And if you do that convincingly, that's great. It's not really one versus the other, but that's just the way we think, me and Tom and I think even Drew. We're just superpragmatic people.

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