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Sunday, April 25, 2021

Notes from a Live Stream: Featuring Paraphrase (Berne/Gress/Rainey)

This was how it ended. Paraphrase live streaming from SEEDS: Brooklyn

By Gary Chapin

Why is there no sound! Wait. I forgot to turn off the mute. A fitting way to begin a live stream at the end of Year Zoom.

Paraphrase is the improvising trio of Tim Berne, Drew Gress, and Tom Rainey. It’s a trio that I’ve enjoyed somewhat for years, but have always cast it as an oddity. One of the things I love most about Tim Berne (and I DO think of it as a Berne group, even though it is a collective … I apologize) is the compositions and this is Berne without the compositions. It’s not a huge barrier or anything, just a bias that I’m pointing out.

This afternoon (4/22/2021), streaming from SEEDS: Brooklyn, Paraphrase played an almost uninterrupted hour. I took notes during the hour! Note that the time stamps you see are not necessarily when things happened, but when I noticed they were happening. At the beginning, I notice Berne has a pretty impressive white beard and mane. Rainey is masked. Gress is wearing the beanie and the bass practically obscures him from view. It all begins slowly, like they’re getting on a speed ramp, gearing up for the highway.

At the 3:11 mark, Rainey is using his flat hand on the snare and brushes for the cymbals. Gress is plucking half and whole note drones (I actually don’t know if they’re half or whole, just that they are long). And Berne is building a mid-tempo melody out of short (less than bar length — if there even are bars), repeated figures. I know I’ve been listening to more than my fair share of Berne this year, but his improv style feels so idiomatically his. He’s got a unique, unmistakable voice.

At 6:18 we have been whipped into our first frenzy. It’s pretty quickly ratcheted back. For a while there’s a minimalist, medium tempo even vibe going on. Gress and Berne mirror rhythmic figures between them (if not the actual melodies).

At 8:36 Rainey is playing all the cymbals all the time, including the high hat. A shimmer settles into the space. Then the bass drum punctuates— dropping bombs? Then the snare. Each piece of the kit being given its own chance to make an entrance.

After a bass drum duet around, some steam starts to build ( 12:08). Berne comes in repeating a figure from before. A nice callback. Small spasms of post-bop phrases pile one on top of the other. The density and the dynamics escalate. at 14:40, Gress is bowing, Rainey sustaining patterns. Seven consecutive hits on the snare with two sticks ! Tension is building!

At 15:29 they go off the cliff. Berne and Rainey fall into a quieter space. Gress continues to bow, but what had been a support for chaos now becomes the ground on which the trio builds ritual space. Bernes tone raises into the highest octave, right on the edge of decay, some high squealing, before he heads into the lower, warmer registers. Rainey drags the sticks on the cymbals for quiet screaming.

17:30 , the harmonies implied by Gress and Berne’s interaction are unnerving.

Let’s stop for a minute and talk about this phenomenon that happens a lot in improvised music — building to a frenzy, pulling back, building to another frenzy. I remember a conversation I had with Marilyn Crispell nearly thirty years ago where she told me that the challenge of playing completely free music was trying to break out of the oscillating cycle where the only things that get varied are texture, tempo, and dynamics. Clearly, I think she was able to cope with and conquer that challenge. But it is why I tend to appreciate the composers in “free music” or folks like Butch Morris and John Zorn who come up with strategies to allow storytelling and freedom to coexist. Still, the rise and the fall happens four times in the hour with Berne, Gress, and Rainey. It’s a thing. It happens.

At 26:01 Rainey and Gress duet, but it’s really a showcase for Rainey. First there’s a kind of madness. “The quality of percussion is not strained, it drops onto the world …” Then silence and I wonder if it’s a break, but it’s not. Rainey begins to rattle his sticks, creating a found sound situation. Then punctuates with points on the xylophone (or glockenspiel, couldn’t tell).

31.05 sees a good dose of the skronkity-skronk. This is not a noise group, by any measure. Paraphrase never overdrives the headlights. They do have their moments of reckless abandon, but not too reckless or too abandoned.

At 34:34 the ensemble is so of one voice. When they are together like this it’s like a fire. When a fire starts in a room it begins in one small space. Spreads to other items. Then to the walls or curtains. Then it climbs to the ceiling and explodes across the ceiling and suddenly the room is on fire!

So, at 37:16 you pray. I don’t know what makes this section seem prayerful, but it is.

Berne plays a solo at 39:06. He is so very good at this, creating melodies. It begins diatonically. A child could sing this. But it doesn’t stay there. Worlds within worlds.

At 50ish I realize we’ve entered a train rhythm of sorts, and the group winds down, first in volume, then in pace. Then they stop. Berne checks the time and says “We’re going to play a four minute and forty-six second song to fulfill our contractual obligation.” Which feels like a very Tim Berne thing to say. Then they play for four plus more minutes, a knotty conundrum of an improvisation that is completely unrelated to what went before. The well of invention is not dry for Paraphrase, but the stream did, as it ended mid-phrase.

This pandemic can go feck itself, but I am glad of the live streams it has produced — I’ve watched lifelong heroes from France, England, Brooklyn, etc. — and I will be sorry if they end. Even so, there aren’t many and they don’t seem to be scheduled far in advance.

A few upcoming streams:

April 25, Tom Harrell live streams from The Village Vanguard, as well as a small library of past streams.

April 28, 3:30 to 4:30 Michael Formanek Drome Trio at SEEDS: Brooklyn

April 29, 3;30 to 4:30 Harish Raghavan Quartet at SEEDS: Brooklyn


Richard Leach said... streams every Tuesday and Thursday. Charging a small fee now. Well worth it.