Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tim Berne's "INSOMNIA"

Tim Berne's musical career has had an unusual trajectory. A jazz fan from upstate New York who made pilgrimages to hear the early '70s greats, he started playing saxophone while in college and moved to New York City in 1974 to study with Julius Hemphill, the brilliant Fort Worth expat who encouraged him to compose before he had even mastered the fundamentals of his instrument.

"Of course, everyone I listened to had their own sound," Berne told The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson in a 2009 interview, adding, "Another thing I thought was normal was that everyone wrote music. It didn’t really occur to me there were sidemen. Everybody I listened to was a bandleader. Most of my role models were composers: Julius, Roscoe [Mitchell], Braxton, eventually Henry Threadgill. So I started writing music almost immediately."

He commenced his recording career in 1979 and has been quite prolific, releasing two albums on Columbia and numerous ones on his own Empire and Screwgun labels. Now Clean Feed has released his INSOMNIA, an octet recording from 1997 that has the feel of a masterpiece. An ensemble that includes violin, cello, and 12-string guitar alongside bass, drums, ex-Hemphill collaborator Baikida Carroll's trumpet, Chris Speed's clarinet, and the leader's alto and baritone saxes performs two half-hour-long pieces that wend their way through myriad shifting moods and rhythms with multiple contrapuntal melodic lines. The net effect is something like Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time meets Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

"The Proposal"'s opening pastoral section gives way to a bold and bracing extemporization from Carroll, then the strings have an impressionistic interlude, joined and eventually supplanted by the woodwinds before an ensemble passage with percussion that's reminiscent of Varese via Zappa circa Burnt Weenie Sandwich. The guitar and bass play cat-and-mouse with the drums, culminating in the echolalic aural equivalent of a fever dream. The ensemble essays an angular melody, gradually building to a complexity that evokes the bustle of a busy urban center, then retreating to long tones that stream like rays of light through cathedral windows. The closing section is quiet and ruminative; all in all, it's quite a journey.

"oPEN, cOMA" takes form tentatively, with randomized harmonics and percussive sounds from the guitar which are soon juxtaposed with a somber melody played by bowed strings. Tension builds as the drums enter, the reverberations from splattering cymbals bouncing off of scraped strings. Speed's clarinet flutters and soars over an increasingly somber and elegiac soundscape, then Carroll's trumpet and Erik Friedlander's cello intertwine searching lines. The ensemble takes up a slow but inexorable, syncopated groove behind a relentless Berne bari solo, with drummer Jim Black playing orchestrally, like Tony Williams on Dolphy's Out To Lunch, then Black closes out the piece with a clattering but precisely controlled solo. When the music stops, you expect to hear more. It's hard to believe this session went unreleased for so long, but it's an unexpected pleasure to have it available at last.


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