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Hard Cell: Feign

John Kelman By

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Hard Cell: Feign Groove means different things to different people. To a hard core bebop addict, it might mean a mighty sense of swing, to a funk fan a strong backbeat. Exchange positions and neither would feel the visceral impact the other's music represents to them.

While considerably more rhythmically complex than a simple backbeat or straight-eights swing, alto saxophonist Tim Berne's music—especially his work with Science Friction, Big Satan, and Hardcell since the turn of the decade—has maintained a strong groove component. Berne's mathematically precise compositions, despite providing considerable freedom, are often deceiving. It may appear that the musicians are involved in extreme free play, but the way his idiosyncratic rhythmic patterns and elliptical themes seem to emerge out of nowhere implies a stronger and more pervasive logic.

Recorded after extensive touring of the US, Canada, and Europe earlier this year, Feign finds Hardcell—a trio with pianist Craig Taborn and long-time musical partner, drummer Tom Rainey—in the studio for a followup to last year's Hardcell Live and 2001's The Shell Game. Recorded direct to two-track, it approaches the live experience fans in Ottawa, Canada encountered when Berne brought this all-acoustic version of Hardcell to town last March—although, as the liner notes say, Feign does demonstrate "surprising restraint," easily making it Berne's most accessible record to date.

In fact, while the disc is filled with the kind of informed and focused improvisation that has been a hallmark of Berne's groups all along, what is most significant and revealing about Feign is just how much the structure dictates where the group will go. Form may be maintained by a saxophone line; or a drum pattern so complex that it's only when Rainey finds his way to a stronger pulse that you realize it's been there all along; or by one of Taborn's hands, while the other continues to explore—but it's always there to be found.

People often banter about the idea of an artist having a distinctive and personal musical language, but with Berne that consideration is no hyperbole. While what Berne does fits best into a loose definition of jazz, it displays few (if any) ostensible characteristics that most would associate with the genre. It doesn't swing in the conventional sense; traditional harmonic concepts are nowhere to be found. In its purely collaborative approach, it's distanced from more delineated soloing. Even basic stylistic forms like the ballad are ignored.

Of course that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of dynamic breadth. With their insistent pattern repetition and Rainey's rock-edged approach, "I Do It (For Brookti)" and "I Thought You Had It" are filled with kinetic energy, while "Brokelyn" offers a darker, more spacious view of Berne's aesthetic.

While Berne's music has never been less than challenging, it also has—in its very specificity—its own allure. While by no means a compromise, Feign is the perfect introduction to Berne for newcomers. For already committed fans, it's a lighter but equally compelling continuation of his ongoing evolution.


Track Listing: I Do It (For Brookti); Time Laugh; Brokelyn; Mechanicals Failure; My First Phone; BG....uh....OH; I Thought You Had It; Pan/Ex.

Personnel: Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Tim Rainey: drums; Craig Taborn: piano.

Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Screwgun Records | Style: Modern Jazz


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