By Gary Chapin
Two years into the pandemic and Tim Berne is casually throwing us archival music like it’s just a normal thing that happens. Color me amazed. It’s like he’s searching through his couch cushions for change and he comes out with these wonderful, magic coins. Producer David Torn shines them up, and then they come to us.
This quartet of Berne’s, playing a 2015 gig, has two of the usual suspects—Ches Smith on drums, and Michael Formanek on bass—and one unusual suspect, Ryan Ferreira on guitar. The history of Tim Berne and his guitarists could be the basis of a Netflix mini-series. Such extraordinary and unique voices coming through his groups, and Ryan fits right into that set.
The album starts with Berne playing a solo, noodling melody, medium dynamic, medium speed, mid-range. Ryan comes in playing the low-pitched strings, sounding a bit like rebar hitting a high tension wire. Ryan widens the palette, and in come the bass and drums.
I’ve had occasion to praise both Smith and Formanek in the past. On Decay, Formanek seems to be especially foundational. He’s the twisted, gnarled trunk of the tree that all the branches radiate from. His melodies in the bass are as satisfying as anything I’ve heard. Ches Smith is like the floating matter that everyone else walks on. As if they’re stepping into open air and his shimmers and bangs come up to put some ground under their feet, adding some risk or urgency to the emotional content.
Towards the end of the second tune, “Imperfect,” I begin to put together what’s different—to me—about Ferreira’s playing. With his long tones and squeals, he’s creating an atmosphere for everything else to breathe in. His voice is an influential one in the construction of this soundtrack, reminding me much more of Berne’s work with David Torn than Marc Ducret. It makes sense since one of Ferreira’s other projects is Music for Images, which moves into ambient territory. He likes to create space.
“How Hip is the Ocean,” takes us into a different space and, apologies to Berne, the ocean is never “hip” to me, but always dark and brooding. And, yes, I know the title is a pun. The piece IS dark and brooding, though. I’m from New England and we live for dark and brooding. The walking pace gives everyone space to make their statements and play their roles with confident, reluctant élan. A good piece of aural theater.
“The Fantastic Five,” opens with a delicious swing from Formanek and Smith, part of the head. They’re joined by Berne and Ferreira. the guitar takes a solo over bass and drums, and after only a few minutes it becomes a conversation between the three of them. Every one of these tracks has an arc to it. A story to tell. The slow rises in intensity can give goose bumps. No one gets to far out ahead, the narrative is never prematurely rushed.
“A Third Option” closes the disc, beginning in the long tone sax/guitar effects duet space, before tapping on the wires and fleet alto lines commence. It’s a 21-ish minute piece that, like the rest of this album, embraces Berne’s vulgar and broad side. Berne is a truly great melodist. So is Formanek. But this album takes as much advantage of the textures available as anything else. Kudos, again, to David Torn for the sound work here.