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Monday, March 7, 2022

Tim Berne, Gregg Belisle-Chi, and Gordon Grdina: Five Stars

By Gary Chapin

Tim Berne and Gregg Belisle-Chi: Mars (Intakt 2022) *****

I feel like this duet recording is closing a thesis-antithesis-synthesis loop. In May 2020 Tim Berne released his first solo recording, Sacred Vowels. In June 2021 Gregg Belisle-Chi released Koi: Performing the Music of Tim Berne. A few months ago, I interviewed Belisle-Chi , and he told me that he and Berne had just recorded a duet—which is what we’re reviewing now. A nice arc or circle, but I hope not a closed one, because I’m going to want more music like this.

I don’t always know what’s going on with the com-provisation balance in this type of thing, and I admit that I might be overly fascinated by the creation process of musicians like this. Here we’ve got Tim Berne’s horn, a powerful instrument that can fill any room, and Belisle-Chi’s guitar, an instrument marked by measured gentleness. The production helps it work. The guitar is intimate and personal, the sax surrounds you. Kudos to David Torn.

Belisle-Chi’s approach is baroque in its spirit, though not its content. As he explained in his interview, he took Berne’s sheet music and created skeletons (with guitar fingerings and all) that had him serving bass, harmony, and melody roles all at various times. The improvisation is woven throughout. It’s unpredictable but logical in its form, like the striations in marble.

There is a sense of introspection and conversation; solitude in partnership. Tim’s improvisations are calls for Belisle-Chi’s responses. I’m reluctant to talk in terms of “purity,” but the distillation that takes place on Mars provides a remarkable clarity to Tim’s tunes. Just the brevity of the pieces (only one longer than 5 minutes, and one under a minute) leaves us understanding that nothing here is excess. You feel this is what the tunes really are. Their purest form.

And that’s a fiction the listener brings and probably a bias of my own. At the very least this album—like the other two in the triptych—provides a different window into Berne’s work. And is beautiful in its own right besides.

I wonder when a recorder consort will step up to the challenge.


Gordon Grdina: Oddly Enough: The Music of Tim Berne (AttaBoyGirl 2022) *****

When I said in the above review that the guitar brings a baroque sense of order to Berne’s music, I should have said, “Shines a spotlight on the baroque sense of order” or “Amplifies the sense of order.” The order is there in the compositions and you can hear it in all of Berne’s work (it’s one of the defining characteristics). The success of the implementation depends on the performer’s relationship with the compositions.

You can hear all of this on Gordon Grdina’s brilliant Oddly Enough . It is also a solo string player interpretation of Berne compositions, but it’s a multi-timbral, multi-tracked, layered recording. Grdina plays electric/MIDI guitar, acoustic, classical, oud, dobro, and MIDI. David Torn produced this one, too.

It opens on “Oddly Enough,” with electronic percussion feeling industrial on its own, but then two electric guitars come in, one pretty clean the other not, creating a context. The clean guitar states a head, while the other supports with counter-melodies in kind. Gordon is talking to himself here, and it’s pretty fascinating listening in. (Side question: when you talk to yourself, are you you, or are you yourself?) “I Don’t Use Hair Products,” is a lean solo guitar interpretation, classical sounding in approach. “Trauma One'' centers the oud for the first time (with other stringy acoustic things joining), as does the later piece, “Enord Krag.” EK places the oud over (and then under) long, howling electric guitar scaps, hearkening (for me) all the way back to Berne’s elegiac work with Bill Frisell on 1984’s Theoretically . (Still one of my faves. They both seem so young.) It’s a welcome call back. Grdina closes with two more extended “conversations” between various instruments, focusing on melodies in relation to other melodies.