AMN Reviews: Three Live Recordings From Tim Berne

My first experiences with saxophonist Tim Berne were his five early recordings from 1979-1983, released on his own (now defunct) Empire label. In the 40-odd years since, he has not slowed down, including during the pandemic of 2020. Relieved of touring duties, Berne has been releasing archival live recordings of various ensembles on his current Screwgun label as well as on Intakt Records.

Three of these recent releases are featured below.

Hardcell – The Cosmos (2007)

Hardcell was Berne along with Tom Rainey on drums and Craig Taborn on piano. The Cosmos was recorded live in 2007, and represents what I believe to be the third official album from the group. Here, the trio practices the style that has become signature for Berne’s groups over the last decade or so. Particularly, Berne provides maze-like structures with distinct themes that he navigates relentlessly with Rainey and Taborn. Between these more preplanned sections, he leads the group through improvisations. Berne’s sax wails without going too far outside, while Taborn’s sweeping lines provide a grounding. Rainey’s patterns are as complex and interesting as those of his bandmates. But perhaps the most compelling aspect is how this group shifts seamlessly between these pre-arranged and open-ended parts. The Cosmos consists of five distinct pieces combined on a single track, with these shifts resulting in tension and release throughout.

Prezens – xForm (2007)

Prezens consists of the Hardcell lineup joined by guitarist David Torn. Ostensibly led by Torn, this group is more electronic and experimental, with Torn employing his signature loops and processing, while Taborn focuses on keyboards rather than piano. Berne plays alto, the tones of which dovetail nicely with Torn’s propensity to sustain high notes. Indeed, the juxtaposition between Berne and Torn varies, with the two alternating between taking on more aggressive or introspective roles. Torn and Taborn are a hypnotic mix, combining to form trippy textures with a slightly retro feel. Rainey is once again in prime form, as his percussion lines could be a solo effort in and of themselves. XForm is also one long track from 2007, and climaxes with a ferocious duel between Berne and Torn featuring ample wails, distortion, angularity, and feedback.

Snakeoil – The Deceptive 4 (2010/2017)

This 2CD offering includes live tracks from 2017 and 2010. The lineup for these outings was Berne on alto, Matt Mitchell on piano, Oscar Noriega on clarinets, and Ches Smith on percussion.

Snakeoil is a logical follower of Hardcell, as both are avenues for exploring the density of Berne’s compositions and how these can be expanded upon by group spontaneity. In particular, Mitchell’s own style is quite similar to that of Berne (or it is at least sufficiently adaptable), and his lines are information-rich in a way that is unconventional for jazz. Indeed, Snakeoil slips between chamber jazz, blowouts, and points in between with subtlety and purpose. Ultimately, the group is more introspective than Hardcell, but even the most pensive movements brood with a restrained combustiveness.

Consisting of two sets, the first four tracks were recorded at New Haven’s Firehouse12 in 2017, while the latter four were culled from the group’s first two shows in 2010. A strong representative track of the New Haven set is Deception, which has Mitchell and Smith playing a classically-tinged set of complex rhythmic structures that contain echos of Cecil Taylor / Tony Oxley duets. Berne and Noriega duel over the top of this in a densely-packed and cerebral manner.

Although the second set properly belongs to Snakeoil’s origin story, it is in no way underdeveloped. Newly-formed, the group deftly navigates Berne’s labyrinthine charts. These feature staggered and pointed themes that flow in lockstep and pull apart as Berne, Noriega, and Mitchell accompany one another in contrapuntal expeditions. Nonetheless, the quartet does not stay entirely in their intellectual space, as the less overtly involved passages are lyrical and emotive.

Mitchell is once again a centerpoint, providing the basis for Berne’s soloing. Noriega’s approach is more elusive, as he often drifts around the edges of these pieces, adding flourishes and harmonies. Smith’s drumming is an interesting mix of cymbals and bass-work, with relatively less taking up the mid-range.