By Gary Chapin
Just to let you know: This is not a review of Tim Berne’s new release, Sacred Vowels . Rather, it is an encomium for Tim Berne using that recording as its launch point. I know I just reviewed three of his recordings a week ago. I couldn’t stop myself. I promise to write about something other than Tim Berne next time,
Berne is a composer and saxophonist living in New York, and he’s been at this dodge, amazingly, for nearly 40 plus years, now. I got on the ride around 1989, when the sublime Fractured Fairy Tales came out. The previous two records (on Columbia, no less) came into my hands shortly thereafter. The three discs — Fractured, Fulton Street Maul , and Sanctified Dreams — delivered a tight coup de tête to my stupid smart, arrogant, “world-weary” college aged brain. I was left staring blankly, wondering how this ecosystemic, ordered-chaotic, improvised-composed, earthy-abstract music could exist, defying reason and creating sense and beauty. And, no, I am not overstating it. There are those moments when “everything” changes. Those moments of initial discovery that mark you in a way that endures and glows forever. The entrance to that rabbit hole leaves a strong, delicious impression. I swear to god, if I could somehow re-experience the moment when I first heard “Hong Kong Sad Song” I would do it in a shot.
A few months or so ago, Berne released Sacred Vowels , recorded in his apartment (produced by David Torn and sounds great), an artifact of the pandemic, and also his first solo saxophone recording, ever. (Yeah, I was surprised, too.) The solo saxophone record is an institution in improvised, jazz-based music . Anthony Braxton’s For Alto casts a long, illuminating shadow. Roscoe Mitchell and Steve Lacy spent a lot of time in this territory. Julius Hemphill, Berne’s mentor and friend, has at least two albums where he’s the only musician, though he overdubs multiple parts. Like all work in jazz and improvised music, any new recording is experienced in relation to the music that went before (whether that was intended or not). Intertextuality is impossible for us obsessives to avoid. More important, to my mind, is the fact that Tim’s work has always been about conversations between musicians, and the relationships that emerge. When he’s playing solo, who’s the conversation with?
Berne has become my soundtrack for this stage of COVID life — the post-job-loss stage which began, for me, on June 30. Coltrane was there at the beginning of the lockdowns. But Berne has been the soundtrack for a number of periods of my life. There was that initial time, when I went to college in Jersey and spent so much time in New York, below 4th Street. Then I moved to Arkansas and Minnesota. Then I came to Maine. My kids were born, grew up, gone on to be happy. Two divorces, three marriages. Always music music music, of all sorts, and every so often I would go back down the rabbit hole and not come up for months. I would need that knotty, rubato-based, story-telling energy. Filled with thought and feeling, clever without being arch, and somehow grounding for me, helping the world make sense, celebrating my joys, screaming with my outrage, consoling my losses. How appropriate for the current moment.
A new realization for me — and you would be justified in chastising me for not getting it sooner — is how unified Tim Berne’s body of work looks when surveyed forty years after discovery. Through the years, when I was listening, and Berne would go from the Fractured band (with Herb Robertson, Hank Roberts, Mark Feldman, Mark Dresser, Joey Baron) to the Big Satan band (with Tom Rainey and Marc Ducret) to the Bloodcount band (with Jim Black, Chris Speed, and Mark Helias) my initial reaction was, “This is so very different!” Which makes sense. Berne invested in these relationships. The conversations and stories have depth. He’s had significant partnerships with at least four guitarists (Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, Ducret, David Torn), two pianists (Craig Taborn, Matt Mitchell), three bassists (Mark Dresser, Mark Helias, Drew Gress), and drummers and trumpers and reed players, etc. With all of these interlocutors in various combinations it makes sense that the music — improvisatory, emergent, self-generating within a structure — would sound different. But now (maybe because I am 53 and have stumbled on the long view), I find myself noticing (prioritizing in my awareness) and reveling in the shared thread that runs through the conversations, and enjoying, but not being distracted by the variance among Berne’s interlocutors.
Which feels a little like a confession. I have loved Berne’s work since I first heard it, but I don’t think I got it as a whole. Being stuck on a mountain in Maine, writing, trying to drum up work, tending to home, and immersing myself in the whole catalogue has made a difference. Put every album onto your phone and play on shuffle. Any track that comes up — Big Satan, the Empire Recordings, Bloodcount, Snakeoil, any of the many duets he’s done, or the solo recording — is so obviously part of an oeuvre (yeah, I went there). Every Tim Berne piece makes sense in terms of every other Tim Berne piece.
Around 1990 I interviewed Tim Berne for and article in Coda Magazine. I remember being an hour late for the interview because I missed the train from Jersey and had to wait for the next, and I remember Tim still being at the cafe (!) and answering all the usual questions (“Tell me about Julius Hemphill?”) and dealing with my own fanboy-trying-to-be-cool vibe. Me trying to get at the stuff interesting to me — at the time, the relationship between composition and the ethic of improvisation, saying bad things about Wynton Marsalis — and not really hearing what he had to say, because I was already writing the piece in my head while we were having the conversation. Holy shit. I was young. And Tim Berne was extraordinarily gracious. I am grateful for that.
I keep a pretty short list of things that have improved my quality of life comprehensively, over time. Tim Berne’s music is on that list, and has been for a while. But Sacred Vowels has reminded me of how thorough and consistent that gift has been. I know (I know!) the title of this recording is a pun, but I’m going to go with earnestness when I say, it is only during COVID time that I realize, for Tim Berne, and for me, the vowels have always been sacred.