Today is the 62nd birthday of Tim Berne, the master composer and alto saxophonist, who has been creating original music for close to 40 years. Downbeat gave me an opportunity to write a feature piece on Tim in 2009—here’s the “director’s cut.”
Midway through 2009, Tim Berne dreamed up a new ensemble. “When I was sleeping I was playing in my brain with Marc Ducret, Paul Motian, and Mary Halvorsen—I can’t remember the bass player,” Berne related. “I actually heard the music; I woke up thinking I’d just done a concert. I thought, ‘Wow, this would be a great band.’”
In conjuring this imaginary two-guitar quintet, Berne drew directly from concrete associations. He’s deployed Ducret over the past two decades in such units as Bloodcount, Science Friction and Big Satan; toured with Motian in the early ‘80s groups that recorded Songs and Rituals In Real Time [Empire], The Ancestors [Soul Note] and Mutant Variations [Soul Note]; and, more recently, incorporated Halvorsen in Adobe Probe, a band that also includes such accomplished speculative improvisers as trumpeter Shane Endsley, bassist John Hebert, drummer Gerald Cleaver, and pianist Matt Mitchell.
Indeed, for Berne, to explore different sonic contexts and personnel combinations is more default m.o. than aberration. “It’s a compulsion, like I don’t have a choice,” Berne elaborated between bites of salad in an Italian restaurant several blocks from his southwest Park Slope home. Tall and trim at 55, the alto saxophonist wore his customary uniform of untucked shirt, blue jeans, running shoes, and several days growth of beard.
“Every time I say I’ll never lead a band again, two minutes later I’m starting one, or I’m thinking about it, or I’m writing,” he said. “I have to in order to feel good. A couple of my bands were together for four-five years. Then people got busy, it became an ordeal to rehearse and find dates in common, and I moved on. When I think I’m getting stale, I tend to seek out other players rather than try to change what I’m doing. Playing with different people changes me by osmosis, and I start getting different ideas—I’m too lazy to figure out how to do it myself at home.”
Reflecting this predisposition for change, Berne’s itinerary over the last two years includes several new, concrete configurations. After initial winter and spring ‘09 engagements, he toured last February with the coop quartet Buffalo Collision, comprising Bad Plus pianist and drummer Ethan Iverson and Dave King, and cellist Hank Roberts, a frequent presence on Berne’s reputation-making latter ‘80s recordings for Columbia and JMT. Their 2009 recording, (duck), on Berne’s Screwgun label, displays a collective sensibility that is at once highly organized and free-flowing—as the pianist put it, “Dave and I go in and out of interlocking, almost composed-sounding events, while Tim’s and Hank’s response is to keep searching for their pure, natural improvised selves.”
Over this period, Berne has played several engagements with BBC (now known as Sons of Champignon), also a coop group, with Jim Black, Berne’s drummer of choice with Bloodcount since 1994, and guitarist Nels Cline, now best-known for his contribution to Wilco.
Both units focus on tabula rasa collective improvisation, differentiating them in process from all but one of the various ensembles that performed the dense, multi-thematic compositions that define Berne’s thirty or so leader dates. “Partly it was practical, because it’s so hard to get people together to rehearse any more,” Berne said. However, over the past year Berne has been on a writing binge for two ensembles—Adobe Probe and a quartet called Los Totopos, with Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Mitchell on piano, and Ches Smith on percussion. The kindling spur was an encounter with a one-performance-only suite composed and performed by Julius Hemphill at the end of the ‘70s with Lester Bowie and Don Moye.
“I thought that I’d arrange this instead of trying to come up with something new,” Berne said. “Something about it is so organic and simple and complicated at the same time, and I started writing arrangements, just to get myself going. It put me into this space of, ‘Ok, I’m going to start working on music all day like I used to, and fuck all this other stuff. If don’t have any gigs—fine. I won’t have any gigs.’”
Bookings have been few and far between for Adobe Probe, partly because of its unwieldy size, but the Los Totopos c.v. now boasts close to 20 performances and, by Berne’s estimate, four sets worth of compositions
“I didn’t want to write a lot of hard music and then not be able to play it,” Berne said. He told Mitchell, Noriega, and Smith, “we’re going to do this, but we have to rehearse a lot—I want it to sound like a band.” Each member was amenable.
“They can all read flyshit and play ninety different styles, but that’s not really the point,” Berne said of his personnel. “I’m looking for people you can’t pigeonhole, who don’t play in styles. I get people who have a natural chemistry—who can recognize when things happen and not get in the way of it—and when I find them, I milk it as long as I can. I try to set up problems for them to solve. It’s like being a painter with a full palette of colors at your disposal to organize. The tunes are like provocations to motivate improvisation. If they aren’t forced to do something they ordinarily wouldn’t do, we might as well just jam.”
Berne is not one to talk about the specific vocabulary and strategies that he deploys to articulate his aesthetic. His recent partners, however, had much to say about the impact of his musical production.
“I grew up with Tim’s music,” said Iverson. “Buffalo Collision is two-thirds of the Bad Plus meets our formative influences.”
He referenced Berne’s two mid-‘80s recordings for Columbia, Fulton Street Maul and Sanctified Dreams, and his cusp-of-the-90s dates for JMT (Fractured Fairy Tales, Miniature, Pace Yourself), on which such virtuoso improvisers as Roberts, Bill Frisell, Mark Feldman, Herb Robertson, and Joey Baron uncorked some of the strongest playing of their early careers.
“When I moved to New York in 1991, it seemed like the coolest, newest stuff around,” Iverson continued. “I thought everybody would know them and regard them as the latest advance in jazz. I am firmly convinced that everybody who made music on the Downtown scene in the ‘90s—Dave Douglas, everybody else—owes an incredible debt to what Tim did. He plays great horn, writes great music, does this crazy improvising. There’s never any doubt about his intention. Whatever pitch Tim is improvising with on the saxophone, there’s a good melodic reason. In two phrases, you can tell he’s playing. It’s his language, his thing, and he plays it very strong all the time.”
Iverson honed in on Berne’s embrace of “eighth-note or Punk energy on vamps that evolve from the context of playing a lot of free music, beautiful rubato melodies—Tim put that in the world.”
“Tim has tremendous power both compositionally and as a bandleader,” Black said. “In Bloodcount, out of a two-hour set, you play about an hour-and-a-half completely improvised, seamlessly weaving together written material and improvisation, with different grooves, times, feels, vibes, attitudes and energies.”
Berne describes his rhythmic conception as osmotic and intuitive. Black broke down the components. “It’s totally James Brown and whatever was happening with funk-based music when Tim was growing up,” he remarked. “But there’s a thousand different ways to play a funk groove—depending on how much energy and action you wanted at the moment, you could play break beats over a James Brown feel. Tim uses odd numbers of bars to follow the shape of the line he’s writing. I would memorize his music by singing the melody, not unlike learning a Charlie Parker head, but more twisted.”
“I was into the idea of the epic within improvisational music, the way Tim integrates improvisation over a long form,” said Mitchell, 34. A decade ago, he purchased scores to “Eye Contact,” a 51-minute opus for Bloodcount from Paris Concerts, and “Impacted Wisdom,” an extended piece from the Caos Totale album, Nice View. These are but two examples of Berne’s penchant for creating, as Cline put it, “episodic journeys that gradually morph into virtually impossible (for me) to play melodic-rhythmic lines that are unbelievably long.
“This kind of drama was not common in a lot of the music twenty-thirty years ago, and maybe still isn’t common in that scene,” Cline continued. “Tim also has a certain amount of patience with improvisation. He’s always had an amazing ability to hone in on a musician’s individual aspects and, I daresay, eccentricities, and to capitalize on them and write for them, to play up those aspects of that particular musician’s style or sound or sensibility, and enable that musician to completely and confidently contribute their personality with absolute freedom.”
In his embrace of idiosyncracy, Berne has followed the path of his own formative role models, all graduates of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group, who, like Berne, migrated to New York in the first half of the ‘70s and became prime movers in the experimental hybrids that defined cutting-edge jazz of that era. Although Berne’s short list of influences includes Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, Roscoe Mitchell, and Henry Threadgill, his guru was Julius Hemphill, the late alto saxophonist-composer.
Berne contacted Braxton for lessons soon after purchasing his first saxophone in 1973. “I was a stone beginner,” Berne affirmed. “But I was so passionate about listening to the music. It transported me, helped me deal with life, in a way. I realized I had to find out whether I could do this, and I figured that if I took lessons, I’d have to do it. Otherwise I’d probably be too lazy.
“Studying with Anthony was systematic—play a C scale, come back, then play a D. But his career was starting to take off, and we couldn’t continue. He said, ‘Oh, you should try to find Hemphill.’ I didn’t know Julius was in New York. I was totally into him because of Dogon A.D. With Julius it was nothing systematic. He just drilled me on long tones. About the only thing I could understand was sound; I realized that’s what made all these guys different. As for the technical stuff, I’d ask questions, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, you figure it out—you could do this or you could do that.’ He was basically teaching me how to think for myself—the confusion he caused made me work harder. The first lesson, he said, ‘What are you interested in?’ ‘I don’t really know, because I’m a beginner.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about magic’—and that’s where we started. Now I know exactly what he was talking about. Why when we’re all improvising do we put this thing together at the same time without a conductor? Things happen that can’t be explained when you’re playing music.”
It seems almost magical that in 1979, five years after those first lessons, Berne released his first recording, The Five Year Plan, comprising all original compositions, on Empire, his first imprint label. “Tim’s aesthetic as a composer and bandleader was pretty much in place,” said Cline, who produced the date. “You could feel the influence of Julius, not only in the variety of the writing with rubato, free textural pieces with dense harmonic content, but also vamps and grooves that were more R&B-influenced, bluesy almost.”
“I started writing almost the first year I started playing,” Berne recalled. “I knew that all my influences wrote music, so I’d better start. I probably couldn’t have done it now. There was less emphasis then on career priorities. Julius was doing five gigs a year. Each of these guys had their own thing, and spent time developing it. They were like actors. I’m not saying it was pure, but there were fewer distractions. That’s what I’m trying to get back to, where you stop thinking about this gig, that tour.”
As we spoke, Berne was anticipating a September sojourn in Europe with a Ducret-led quartet, and various domestic and international engagements with bassist Mike Formanek—during the ‘90s, he recorded six times with Bloodcount in addition to duo and trio dates with Berne, who played on four of Formanek’s own ‘90s Enja albums—in support of the 2010 quartet release The Rub and Spare Change [ECM].
“It’s like a psychological vacation,” Berne said of the sideman function. “I’m only responsible for playing the music. Plus, Marc and Mike write such meaty music, and I’m immersed in their ideas for 10 or 15 gigs, which definitely informs what I write next. I don’t really care if I’m original or not.”
With Los Totopos, Berne navigates an acoustic context, after a number of years devoted primarily to plugged-in timbres, textures, and skronk. He is also aiming for a certain concision, a word never heretofore applicable to Berne’s oeuvre.
“Our recent concerts were pretty different from our first ones,” Berne said. “Just to see if I could do it, I tried to tame myself a little. Shorter, more focused tunes that aren’t as suite-like; the first thing that comes to my mind as opposed to working on something until it’s about six hours long. I’ve kind of succeeded. Also, the music itself is different. There’s more…dare I say…conclusive harmony.
“Whatever I’m doing a lot of, I want to do the other thing. I was doing a lot of electric stuff, but I got frustrated with soundchecks and equipment sucking—if the sound isn’t perfect, the electric thing gets to be a drag. Then I realized my music sounds good on piano. Then I got into the beautiful sound of the piano and clarinet. I get myself to that point where I say, ‘enough of this; now I’m going to do that.’ I reserve the right to change my mind.”