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Tim Berne's Acoustic Hard Cell - Ottawa, Canada

John Kelman By

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Tim Berne's Acoustic Hard Cell
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Ottawa, Canada
Tuesday, March 8, 2005

It may have been a frigidly cold night in Ottawa, Canada on Tuesday, March 8, 2005, but for 90 minutes alto saxophonist Tim Berne and his Acoustic Hard Cell trio warmed things up considerably for a near-capacity crowd in the intimacy of the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage. Along with long-time musical partners Craig Taborn on piano and drummer Tom Rainey, the trio went a long way towards demonstrating how idiosyncratic and complex composition can coexist with wild yet somehow instinctively-controlled free improvisation.

It is, in fact, a characteristic of Berne's music, regardless of context — whether it be with his larger and more electronically-infested Science Friction Band, or with smaller subsets like Big Satan and Hard Cell — to combine more outer-reaching explorations and provocative compositional frameworks into an amalgam that challenges the listener to figure out how they navigate both territories. But the truth of the matter is that these are not separate concepts; rather, Berne and the trio find ways to integrate both avenues into a uniquely-complexioned whole.

In performance, even at their freest, there's a perceptible sense of inner logic that prevails, a certain kind of mathematics. Less about overt chord movement and more about the myriad of implied harmonies made possible by the interaction between Berne and Taborn, Acoustic Hard Cell may be the most approachable project Berne has going. They may be in odd meters and Rainey may subdivide the time in strange and unusual ways, but some of the music definitely grooves.

Berne's command of the alto is remarkable, exploring the full range of the instrument and reaching highs and lows rarely heard from it. His solos are demonstrations of how free music doesn't mean simply playing whatever comes to mind. Instead, Berne exhibits the same kind of consideration in his improvisation as he does in his composition, building small conceits into broader themes, and with a focus on ideas, not just rampant flurries of notes.

In Taborn it's refreshing to hear a pianist who doesn't come directly from the usual suspects — Hancock, Evans, Jarrett, Tyner — instead, Taborn comes from freer places that include a certain new music sensibility. And his left hand/right hand independence is inestimable, especially considering the challenge of navigating Berne's tough charts. While there is some precedence in Cecil Taylor in the way Taborn approaches improvisation, he's far less heavy-handed.

Rainey's command of the kit is equally significant. With all manner of extended techniques, that for some players come off as gimmickry and shtick, for Rainey these are all simply part of expanding the palette of the kit. Sadly an under-appreciated player, Rainey's strength, formidable technique aside, is in his ability to both anticipate and drive the interplay on the stage.

The interplay and untarnished line of communication between the players is, quite simply, uncanny. That the three have played together in a number of contexts for some time now certainly contributes to their clear simpatico; but watching Berne direct things with the smallest of physical cues and, sometimes, the most subtle of musical ones, is a sight to see, as the trio responds as a single voice. Just when you think that things are as far out as they can be, a small nod from Berne brings everything back into focus as they combine for another of Berne's characteristically staggered and staggering thematic constructs. And his compositions are not simply themes that lead into improvisation and back; as outré as they are, they are, indeed, songs with distinct movement and progression.

In a set that consisted of "Van Gundy's Retreat and "Traction, both recorded on Berne's recent Electric and Acoustic Hard Cell Live, as well as three new pieces — "My First Phone, "Brokelyn and "Time Laugh — Berne had little to say to the audience, but nobody seemed to mind. From the more up-tempo exploration of "Van Gundy's Retreat to the skewed balladry of "Brokelyn, Acoustic Hard Cell's clear strength in positing loose improvisation within a clear, albeit oftentimes challenging, structure made for a wholly engaging evening. And, after an all-too-short 75-minute set, the audience refused to let the group leave the room without an encore, another new piece titled "It Was in the Other Bag.

Presented as part of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival's winter series of concerts, bringing Tim Berne and Acoustic Hard Cell may be one of their riskier moves. But with an audience that was clearly tuned into the trio's distinctive interplay and Berne's equally compelling writing, the Festival received a clear message that there's room for the more experimental side of jazz in the Ottawa landscape. Hopefully the success of the show will encourage them to continue bringing a wider variety to the city, both inside and outside the confines of the summer festival.

Visit Tim Berne on the web.

Photo Credit:
T. Bruce Wittet

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