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Tim Berne: Insomnia

Troy Collins By

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Recorded in the summer of 1997, the previously unreleased Insomnia offers an expanded variation of composer/saxophonist Tim Berne's critically lauded 1990s quartet, Bloodcount. The group, which featured Berne (on alto and baritone saxophones), tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Jim Black, was widely revered for its ability to fashion dramatic opuses that seamlessly integrated abstracted mutant funk vamps with extended episodes of spectral introspection. Bolstered with a mixed quartet of notable string and brass players, the augmented ensemble extends the expressive range Berne's flagship band was known for.

Bloodcount's epic excursions were originally issued by JMT records and later by Berne's own Screwgun imprint. With their legacy copiously documented by the end of the decade, Berne moved on to other projects, like Big Satan and Hard Cell. How Insomnia escaped release until now is a mystery, but its arrival presents an opportunity for the reevaluation of an admired group.

Recorded live in the studio, the date consists of two episodic long-form compositions, "The Proposal" and "Open, Coma," each lasting approximately half an hour. Less kinetic overall than Berne's typical releases of the day, this session embraces a languid chamber-esque sensibility, amplifying the legato melodies that typically underscore Berne's contrapuntal themes. Segueing between divergent passages with cinematic élan, Berne's juxtaposition of instrumental sonorities is a revelation, yielding richly hued hybrids of bristling textural detail.

Trumpeter Baikida Carroll's brassy extemporizations and the sinewy glissandos of Dominique Pifarély's violin and Erik Friedlander's cello render a stark chiaroscuro of polyphonic harmonies that bolster the octet's kaleidoscopic palette. Guitarist Marc Ducret, a regular guest of Bloodcount, limits himself to a 12 string acoustic, conveying a vaguely rustic sensibility far removed from the urban bluster of his electric work. His coiled thematic variations transcend Eastern and Western traditions, blending percussively strummed chords, spiky arpeggios and piercing harmonics into virtuosic fantasias.

In light of the prolonged duration of these pieces, ample solo space is provided for all, including extended musings from the core quartet members. Berne's searing alto fervently ascends the mid-section climax of "The Proposal" with architectural rigor, while the dramatic finale of "Open, Coma" spotlights the impetuous brio of his baritone. The spiraling cadences and woody tone of Speed's clarinet find concordance with the strings in this lush setting—more so than in Bloodcount's stripped-down format. Formanek and Black's graceful shifts between tempos, meters and dynamics provide elastic grooves that elevate the proceedings, with Black's nuanced brush work offering sumptuous timbral detail in the company of strings.

A most welcome discovery, Insomnia presents a rarefied view of a celebrated composer and his flagship band working through previously unimagined avenues, begging the question, what else remains unreleased from this fertile era?

Track Listing: The Proposal; Open, Coma.

Personnel: Tim Berne: alto and baritone saxophone; Chris Speed: clarinet; Baikida Carroll: trumpet; Dominique Pifarély: violin; Erik Friedlander: cello; Marc Ducret: 12 string guitar; Michael Formanek: contrabass; Jim Black: drums.

Title: Insomnia | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Clean Feed Records

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