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Paraphrase: Pre-Emptive Denial

John Kelman By

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What do you do for a release when your normal modus operandi is to play within a context of complex composed material? In the case of saxophonist Tim Berne, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Tom Rainey, the answer is to periodically convene a group called Paraphrase, whose purpose in life is to improvise without a safety net or advance planning. Paraphrase may not be a regular occurrence, but the three have played together so often—especially Berne and Rainey, who have intersected on all of Berne's projects since 1997—that they clearly share a deep musical understanding, making every performance special.

There are only two commercially available Paraphrase releases—Please Advise and Visitation Rites (both Screwgun, 1998)—but the group's liberal taping policy has resulted in many of its concerts being recorded. A May, 2005 show at John Zorn's The Stone club in New York is the source for Pre-Emptive Denial, an album of pure spontaneity that reveals how, even in a totally free context, the members of Paraphrase think compositionally. While the territory Paraphrase travels is diverse indeed, and its approach is not for the faint of heart, it does show that free music needn't lack purpose.

It wouldn't work, of course, unless the musicians were in a constant state of readiness, with ears wide open and minds unencumbered. The two 25-minute pieces are remarkable in just how responsive each player is to his surroundings—at times subtle, elsewhere more direct. But Paraphrase's clear purpose is to build a collective something from nothing. Berne is capable of wilder flights, but is invariably found trying to develop thematically. The tiniest motif becomes a repeated and ever-evolving phrase that leads logically to the next. While there's rarely a defined groove, neither does Rainey rely on his kit for solely textural purposes.

Both pieces run the gamut from bold assertion to delicate abstraction, but "Trading On All Fours leans more to the rambunctious side while "We Bow to Royalties is generally darker. "We Bow to Royalties begins with Berne's long, gentle notes intertwining with Gress' softly bowed bass—sometimes in close dissonance, elsewhere spread farther apart. Aiming to create structure from the ether, Berne slowly constructs melodies that, while not exactly lyrical, are strangely appealing. Equally, Rainey demonstrates his own distinct sense of architecture. His duet with Gress around the seven-minute mark ultimately shifts the trio's focus towards greater extremes, with the three coalescing into a firm groove around the twelve-minute mark, where Berne fleshes out his solo by expanding specific thematic conceits.

Perhaps there are too many free improvisers out there using the genre as an excuse to cover poor planning and lack of direction. Still, the best improvisers know that the most compelling free playing is where there's a story to be told, albeit one that may not even be evident to the players at the outset. Berne, Gress and Rainey are clearly imaginative storytellers, and these three always have something good to say to each other—and their listeners—in this vividly conversational narrative.

Visit Tim Berne and Drew Gress on the web.


Track Listing: Trading On All Fours; We Bow to Royalties.

Personnel: Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Drew Gress: bass; Tom Rainey: drums.

Title: Pre-Emptive Denial | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Screwgun Records


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