Old and Unwise
Tim Berne’s prodigious discography is mostly stocked with collections of his monumentally scaled compositions, sprawling musical roadmaps for laborious treks through ever-changing landscapes. These two new releases, however, are both wholly improvised sessions, revealing that the scope of Berne’s thinking is hardly diminished by the absence of sheet music.
Old and Unwise finds Berne keeping less-familiar company in French bassist Bruno Chevillon. Where the BB&C trio single-mindedly forged itself into a lumbering, destructive behemoth, this duo outing is a more traditional dialogue between two adventurous soloists. The album takes the form of 11 focused interactions, each staking out slightly different territory.
Berne’s playing has always balanced on a tightrope between tart serpentines and the burly, big-shouldered honk inherited from his mentor, Julius Hemphill. Chevillon proves a perfect complement to that sound, offering up massive slabs of tone to meet the saxophonist’s piercing stabs, bowing gentle elegies under bluesy howls, or meeting breathiness with tense, insectoid buzzing. Chevillon maximizes his bass, coaxing sounds from the instrument outside of its expected range. “Quelque Chose Vacille” opens with almost vocal-like resonances from sharply plucked strings; on “Single Entendre” it becomes a percussion instrument, with pops, slaps and booms. “Cornered” seems to take the idea of “sawing” the bass literally.
It may be difficult to keep up with Berne’s release schedule (even more so with his endless supply of pun-happy band names), but each new title finds his expansive inventiveness diverting down another strangely contoured alley. Almost always, it’s worth the effort to follow his lead.