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Tim Berne: The Shell Game

Todd S. Jenkins By

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Altoist Berne continues to explore unseen territories and push the boundaries of musical intensity on this, the latest release in Thirsty Ear's Blue Series as overseen by Matthew Shipp. For the past couple of decades Berne has been one of the most adventurous altoists in modern jazz, and this new trio finds him mining virgin musical land once more.

Craig Taborn performs on keyboards and electronics, sculpting ominous nightmare visions (and, on occasion, idyllic oases) between Berne's ferocious alto and Tom Rainey's drums, on which he exhibits a most expansive vocabulary. Berne's tone is reminiscent of Arthur Blythe and Henry Threadgill at times, though his improvisations are derivative of neither; he is largely his own man on the alto. Most of his albums tend to be filled to the brim with surprises, and The Shell Game is no exception.

The four compositions are as dark and moody as one would expect from Berne, and largely consist of jagged themes repeated over and over again; not ad nauseam, mind you, but as tools for building the tension that Berne seems to thrive upon. Sometimes he assumes a basic post-bop approach; on other occasions his sound recalls long-rusted hinges or howling wild beasts. It's frequently easy to forget that one is listening to the instrument of Bird. Taborn is largely responsible for the ear-catching atmospheres hovering around the selections. A number of intelligently selected sounds emerge from his corner: gently funky electric piano, crunching bass lines, sci-fi noodling, and what-have-you. Despite the importance of Taborn's alien sonic contributions, It's largely Rainey's drum conceptions that keep these ostinato-based tracks booted along and interesting, with a swell here and a rhythmic fragmentation there. The result is one daunting but compelling disc.

In a genre that's too often marked by meandering individuals that don't interact well with their bandmates, this trio excels at reacting to each other's expositions under pressing circumstances. On the evidence of this release and Matthew Shipp's New Orbit, the Blue Series is becoming a much-needed wellspring of new music that's both accessible and seriously creative.


Track Listing: Hard Cell (for Tom); Twisted/Straight Jacket; Heavy Mental (for Wayne Krantz); Thin Ice.

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

Title: The Shell Game | Year Released: 2001 | Record Label: Thirsty Ear Recordings


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