Shaun Brady reviews 'Insomnia,' the new release by saxophonist Tim Berne
Tim Berne is nothing if not prolific. Even single pieces are packed with more ideas than many a composer would try to cram into an entire album, and Berne doles out his epics in more punnily named configurations than anyone (even their members) could be expected to keep straight.
All the evidence you’d need of Berne’s fecundity is contained within Insomnia. Recorded in 1997 but unreleased until now, this breathtaking octet recording would be a keystone in many a musician’s catalog but is relegated to something of a brilliant footnote to the saxophonist’s work with Bloodcount. That quartet—Chris Speed, here sticking entirely to clarinet; bassist Michael Formanek; and drummer Jim Black—was Berne’s chief outlet in the mid-’90s and forms the backbone of the ensemble here. But they’re doubled by four more equally adventurous improvisers: frequent collaborator Marc Ducret on acoustic 12-string guitar, violinist Dominique Pifarély, cellist Erik Friedlander and trumpeter Baikida Carroll, a close collaborator of Berne’s mentor, Julius Hemphill.
Berne’s work is defined not just by the scale of his ideas but by his wry, often caustic approach to them. The two half-hour-length pieces on Insomnia are typical of that approach, as if an Impressionist’s palette were used on a Pollock action painting. Black’s rattle-trap drumming has always been key, revealing the scrapheap origins of Berne’s monuments.
“The Proposal” opens in situ with a melee of squawks, moans and squeals, which continue to underlie an elegiac string section. The piece is all about the journey, Berne delighting in contrasts and juxtapositions. It’s a Frankensteined mélange of oblique-angled melodies alternating with distinct groupings of improvisers, furiously dueling strings or a trio of chirping trumpet, woody clarinet and screeching bowed bass. “oPEN, cOMA” is more of a continuum, flowing more smoothly and focusing on the strings, in particular Ducret’s guitar, which replaces his usual barbed-wire fretboard-work with ringing chords and steely tones.