Alto saxophonist Tim Berne likes to make a small group sound big. "I like the intimacy and the fact that everybody's really involved all the time. Mind Over Friction
, a reissue of a live album of his band Science Friction, recorded in Switzerland in 2003, features lengthy passages where Marc Ducret's electric guitar and Tom Rainey's drums bludgeon each other into wild frenetics before the entire group, including Berne and Craig Taborn on keyboards, returns to a theme that's both orderly and chaotic at the same timethe type of music one might witness at a rock amphitheatre.
"I will never forget the moment Tim and I were mastering a really badly recorded record, and sitting and listening to the music, and it just struck me how non-jazz it was. And I said, 'Oh my god, you guys want to sound like an old Led Zeppelin record!', recalled guitarist David Torn, who has mastered and produced Berne's albums since the mid 1990s.
Tight, rhythmic compositions that distill into awkwardly propulsive improvisations illustrate one of the flagship qualities of Berne's music. Livein Cognito
, a recent release of his trio Big Satan with Rainey and Ducret, screams of rancid exhilaration. In the absence of bass or keyboards, they create their own rhythms, linking harmonies or refracting off each other. "For me, writing is just a different way of provoking improvisation, Berne explained. "If it doesn't serve that function it's really not useful for me, just to have something pretty that goes on for two minutes to kill time. It has to really cause something or cause musicians to want to improvise. If it doesn't have that, then just improvise.
Strong improvisational skills are a requirement, and within the realm of Berne's music, relationships among his usual cohorts have flourished. Rainey, Ducret and Taborn are organized into his three main bands: Big Satan, Science Friction and Hard Cell, a trio with Rainey and Taborn who play at the 2007 Vision Festival at the Angel Orensanz Foundation. When Berne wants a bassist, he calls on Drew Gress, who plays in his all-improvisational trio Paraphrase, or Michael Formanek.
"I just kind of look for weirdos, Berne explained, "people that don't play into expectations. They're always trying to evolve and surprise. Over cheesecake at Junior's in Brooklyn, Berne explains how he began an education in music with Julius Hemphill. "The first thing we started focusing on was sound, explained Berne who started studying with the late saxophonist and composer in 1975 at age twenty. "He couldn't stress enough the importance of tone.
Three decades later, the evidence exists that his time with Hemphill was well-spent. A strong drive and relentless originality punctuates his catalog, comprised of over thirty releases as a leader, many on his own labels Screwgun or Empire, the latter a label he started in his early twenties. JMT released several discs including Diminutive Mysteries
(1993), a tribute to Hemphill; Fulton Street Maul
and Sanctified Dreams
were both put out by Columbia in 1987.
Syracuse, New York-born, Berne's journeys into Manhattan to see the Modern Jazz Quartet, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, Sun Ra and others in the 1970s, provided a musical foundation, but he hadn't considered actually playing until 1974, when, while nursing an ankle sprained on the basketball court, he bought an alto saxophone from a college dorm mate.
"This guy was selling it so I bought it, then I would just annoy people. I used to put on the Pharoah Sanders record Thembi
and play over it. Realizing he'd need formal lessons, he headed to New York and started studies with Anthony Braxton. But Braxton soon grew too busy to teach and recommended he call Hemphill. Berne had been a fan of his since purchasing Dogon A.D.
at a record store in Syracuse. He was attracted to the album because it featured cello, which he thought would be interesting, and drummer Philip Wilson, who he knew from Paul Butterfield's band.
"I would buy records I had never heard, he said. "I loved that experience, coming home and putting something on and not knowing what it was going to sound like. And that record brought together all these different things that I was interested in. The avant-garde stuff and the soul music, it all kind of came under one roof on that record.
With a core group of musicians to call on, Berne stays focused, yet cycles continuously through his pantheon of interests. "If something gets too easy or comfortable I tend to go to something else, find another challenge.
He has composed music for groups like the ARTE Quartett, the Kronos Quartet and the Copenhagen Art Ensemble, but doesn't go out in search of those types of commissions. "If someone asks me I'll say yes, but I'm more of a blue collar composer, he explained.
Currently he focuses his energy on playing gigs, which he says is the best form of promotion, and putting out records on Screwgun. He culls from an archive of tapes from shows recorded throughout the years, and once in awhile happens upon a gem which he'll release as an album. Such was the case with Livein Cognito
, a live album whose location will not be revealed for fear that if word got out, furious bootleg exchanges would occur, leaving the album unsold.
This year his first DVD, a live show in Paris of his band Bloodcount is planned for release. No longer active, the group included Formanek, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed and drummer Jim Black. He's put out a nice collection of solo discs by his regular mates, but would like to spend more time on the label, recording more musicians.
"I'd love to have a real label, he said. "The way I do it now is a little more guerrilla just because I don't have the time, but I'm quite sure I could do it successfully. I don't think it's as hard as people make it out to be. You just have to believe in what you're doing. A lot of guys, at the sign of any kind of business turbulence they just bail. If you're passionate about the music and you know how to present it you have to convey that to people. People want to like something, they want to buy it. You just have to be a little creative.
Creativity and integrity are two qualities Berne abounds in, according to Torn, whose album Prezens (ECM, 2007) documents himself and Berne playing together on a commercially-released recording for the first time. "His persistence in pursuit of his vision is that kind of integrity that is pretty rare these days, said Torn, "especially when integrity is applied to developing your own idiom of music. He's not working within an established genre, he's working within the genre of Tim Berne music, and that is extremely rare.
David Torn, Prezens (ECM, 2005)
Tim Berne's Science Friction, The Sublime And (Thirsty Ear, 2003)
Tim Berne's Paraphrase, Please Advise (Screwgun, 1998)
Tim Berne's Bloodcount, Unwound (Screwgun, 1996)
Tim Berne's Caos Totale, Nice View (JMT-Winter & Winter, 1993)
Tim Berne, Mutant Variations (Soul Note, 1983)