By Gary Chapin
Trying to be up to the minute with Tim Berne releases is feeling nearly as impossible as keeping up with Matthew Shipp. I’m doing it, but phew! Since I signed on to review these three, four more have come out. One is the sublime solo recording, Sacred Vowels. The other three, like so much coming out during the pandemic, are archival, never released recordings. It’s an embarrassment of riches that I celebrate.
David Torn/Tim Berne/Ches Smith - Sun of Goldfinger (Congratulations to You) ****
Sun of Goldfinger (Congratulations to You) is drawn mainly from recordings of the first concert Berne did with David Torn (guitar, production) and Ches Smith (drums, electronics). He had worked before with Torn in Prezens (with Tom Rainey on drums), and he had been working a couple of years with Smith in Snakeoil. Like Prezens, the Sun of Goldfinger (Congratulations to You) listens like a soundtrack for a film that you’re improvising in your head. Imagine a 1920s silent film house with some like James P. Johnson playing piano, and instead of the music being improvised to the images, the images are improvised to the music. That’s how I receive this. (I may have soundtracks on the brain because I’m a fan of Torn’s movie work. Lars and the Real Girl? Anyone?)
Some of the things I love about this:
- Tim’s baritone has been sorely missed by me. He’s become an alto-only guy, which I can respect. Can’t serve two masters. But I loved his bari work and hearing it here brought me joy.
- Torn’s guitar encourages a dirty kind of Stax-funk sensibility that used to be much more prominent in Tim’s work — possibly this is a function of the baritone, too — and Smith’s drumming is so dang heavy. (Good lord, is that a back beat I’m hearing? Oh! It’s gone).
- The frame of this is landscape and noise. Given that this was live, the layering of sounds, ideas, and atmosphere is pretty extraordinary. There are characters, plot twists, scene setting, murders, resurrections, masks, explosions, ebbs, flows, and reflection.
What it sounds like is 50+ minutes of Torn, Berne, and Smith layering images one on top of another, withdrawing and shifting, very electric, very rock, with the sax and guitars asserting themselves melodically (and they are, indeed, very melodic) and sometimes the drums, too. Torn’s minimalism (in the form of repetition, not austerity) creates a lot of tension in partnership with Berne’s “solos,” with Smith driving the whole thing pretty hard. It’s part of the subset of music that includes Bitches Brew, King Crimson, and Blade Runner.
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil - The Deceptive 4 (Intakt 2020) ***1/2
Snakeoil has, by some reviewers, been referred to as having a “chamber jazz” sound by some, and there has been some eyebrow movement over the fact that Berne is playing on ECM, perhaps wondering if he might be compromised by that label’s perceived preciousness. Listening to the 2 disc set, The Deceptive 4 (Another obscure pun album title, huzzah!), I find the second concern to be unfounded. There’s nothing precious (in the twee sense) here, as has been true of the previous Snakeoil records, going back to the beginning. And the great sound is just … well … great. As for the “chamber jazz” idea … look, I can’t imagine Berne conceives this as chamber music, but I do actually love chamber music. The term’s derivation, from the Baroque era, is that it’s non-orchestral music played where you are close enough (in the actual chamber) to hear the distinct joys of each instrument and idea of the small group. On writer called chamber music “the music of friends.” All of that serves Berne’s music very well. There’s a separation and discrimination between the musicians that is not present, for example, in Sun of Goldfinger. It’s a different thing. Each player here — Berne, Ches Smith, Oscar Noriega (clarinets), and Matt Mitchell (piano) — takes Berne’s knotty, “rubato based” (his words) compositions, their parts, and pulls them into something wonderful. This music has its gentle moments while everyone (Noriega and Berne, especially) extend themselves into the fire, frequently. Honestly, Noriega is a goddamn national treasure, and his voice in the rogues gallery of Tim Berne compatriots stands out as something unique. Also, just a side note, is there any sound more dissonant than dissonant vibes? Asking for no reason.
Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell Duo - Spiders (Out of Your Head, 2020) ****1/2
This is a 42-ish minute set of Berne tunes (and one Julius Hemphill tune) recorded presumably in Feb 2020. The liner notes say “February 30,” which, you most likely know, is a date that does not exist, but … fine. I do love duet recordings. They are one of the great pillars of the creative music explosion of the 1960s. The conversation as a unit of measurement in jazzavantcreative music genuinely sings to me and is another form of “chamber” music that resonates with me. Spiders has a lot of space to it and Berne’s and Mitchell’s voice are each as brilliant. It is genuinely surprising how light and fleet the two can be. There are moments that, to me, code as earnest and beautiful, almost elegiac in a chamber way. There is a particularly powerful side of Berne’s work that comes through in this recording. In a podcast interview in April, Berne told the reviewer, in being compared to Roscoe Mitchell, Hemphill, and that crowd, “I’m not doing anything new.” And in a way he’s not, there are no formal or technical innovations going on. Since his style matured in the way back, Berne’s work has been structurally consistent. He creates situations within which he can converse, collaborate, or conspire with different agglomerations of creative musicians. He has a vision as a composer and improviser and it is a #thingofbeauty and #awondertobehold. The joy, the power, the wonder of Berne’s music is in the compositions he writes and improvisations he spins. Within this chosen form — creative jazz — the well of his imagination feels limitlessness. The fact that the expressions of his creativity seem to suit my temperament to an uncanny degree just makes me the lucky one. Both Berne and Mitchell are really masters, here, of the pitch based (as opposed to extended technique) improv. It’s an underappreciated asset. I say we appreciate it.
And just, in case you need a bit more before you get these gems...