Tim Berne: Mind Over Friction

Celeste Sunderland By

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Tim BerneAlto 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 time—the 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.


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