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Matt Mitchell: Forage

Dan McClenaghan By

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Alto saxophonist Tim Berne could have been called, at the dawn of the new millennium, the American artist least likely to join the ECM Records roster. The thought here was that Berne's relentless momentum and frequent agitation and flat out wild man brazenness wouldn't fit in well enough with the European impressionism/Nordic cool approach (a definite simplification of the way ECM rolls) to attract the attention of ECM Record's head Manfred Eicher. Then Berne appeared on guitarist David Torn's Prezens in 2007, leading to a spot in bassist Michael Formanek's Rub and Spare Change (2010) and Small Places (2012), that opened the door to three sets under his own leadership with his group Snakeoil. Which goes to show that paying too much attention to labels or trying to read Eicher's mind are not recommended activities. All of the above-mentioned sets are highly innovative and uniformly excellent.

So what about a solo piano. Tim Berne's music is too busy, too frenetic. It careens down too many unexpected pathways. It would take an Art Tatum—in a free-spirited state of mind—to tackle that project.

Wrong again. Pianist Matt Mitchell goes solo on Forage, an in depth examination of the compositions of Tim Berne.

Mitchell has released two distinctive CDs under his name on the Pi Recordings—Fiction (2013), and Vista Accumulation (2015), and he has also occupied the piano chair in Berne's Snakeoil from its beginning, appearing on all three of the group's albums. He knows the Berne sound, and with just the piano he recites his singular rendition of that turbulent energy, the fervid and idiosyncratic Berne-ian musical vision. He sounds possessed by percussive demons on "Traces," laying down a density comparable to the Snakeoil sound. But on "Aas" he probes with a deliberate introspection, allowing the tunes off-center beauty to unfold at a measured pace. "Raay" has more sharp angles than a Thelonious Monk composition, a near ballad featuring bursts of delicate flurries. Then there's the stark, prickly, dark urgency and clustered note intricacy of "Cerbs."

Mitchell sits in an immersion of the music, shaping mesmerizing takes on these robust, off-center, compositions. His Forage presents a faithful rendering of Tim Berne's artistry and vision via his superb and personal interpretations, on a distinctive and first rate solo piano recording. His finest to date. And throw in the bonus of the attractive packaging with its weirdly captivating cover art drawings by Steven Byram, the man behind dozens of the previous Screwgun Records covers, making an excellent argument for the continuation of the physical CD.

Track Listing: Paene; Traces; Aas; Ray; Cerb; Cloude; Siin.

Personnel: Matt Mitchell: piano.

Title: Forage | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Screwgun Records

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