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Tim Berne: The Shell Game

Mark Corroto By

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Tim Berne: The Shell Game The latest incarnation of alto saxophonist and composer Tim Berne is his trio Quicksand, which also includes drummer Tom Rainey and keyboardist Craig Taborn. On The Shell Game, this group explores a series of extended form, post-millennial compositions that appear from thin air, apply waves of tension, then release and disappear into nothingness. Berne, a disciple of Julius Hemphill, has been an influential on the New York Downtown scene for nearly twenty years—including collaborations with John Zorn, Michael Formanek, and Dave Douglas. Drummer Tom Rainey has shared experience with Berne in Paraphrase (with Drew Gress) and Big Satan (with Marc Ducret). Keyboardist Craig Taborn, who played bop piano for James Carter for several years, has recently edged outward with Berne and violinist Mat Maneri.

On The Shell Game, Quicksand borrows ideas from Berne's Bloodcount quartet, incorporating open-ended improvisation within a disciplined architecture of arrangements. Replacing the bass with keyboards doesn't eliminate the bottom end; in fact, Taborn deploys some serious woofer-thumping throughout. Berne's music on The Shell Game unites his penchant for suites with a hip-hop sensibility. The opener, 'Hard Cell,' suggests the sounds of Brooklyn's M-BASE and Herbie Hancock's electric street jazz. Taborn lends support at both the top and the bottom end. Rainey's drum kit sounds more like found objects than skins: the harsh sound of his drum tuning resonates with the brawling nature of Berne's music. The third tune, 'Heavy Mental," presents hard bop for the new millennium, mixing fast and furious melodies with head-nodding bass. Berne's music, while demanding at times, can also yield immediate pleasure.

The disc ends with the nearly 30-minute tune 'Thin Ice.' This composition uses Sun Ra/Bladerunner electronic ambiance and processional drumming as the undertones for Berne's lengthy saxophone solo. Tim Berne's art is more about synthesis than collage—an Ellington model for the outward bound.


Track Listing: Hard Cell; Twisted/Straight Jacket; Heavy Metal; Thin Ice.

Personnel: Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Craig Taborn: electronics, keyboards; Tom Rainey: drums.

Year Released: 2002 | Record Label: Thirsty Ear Recordings | Style: Modern Jazz


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