Tim Berne: Snakeoil Salesman

What does his new major-label exposure mean to an avowed avant-gardist?

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Bloodcount with Tim Berne, 2008
By Peter Gannushkin

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Back on a major label and at the helm of an excellent young working band dedicated to his vision, saxophonist Tim Berne has emerged from the underground yet again. But what does the spotlight mean to an artist so completely devoted to creative daring?

If you’ve logged any course hours in modern philosophy, you may have spent more time than you’d like considering the tensions between skepticism and pragmatism. If you’ve spent much time with the music of saxophonist, composer and bandleader Tim Berne, you’ve felt those tensions at gut level. Over the course of his intensely self-directed career, Berne has embodied a rough convergence of those two schools of thought, casting a cold eye on conventional wisdom while endlessly putting theory into practice.

All of which is another way of saying that Berne, 57, has always done his own thing in his own way. This, among other things, has made him one of the more doggedly consistent figures in avant-garde jazz over the last 35 years, an artist whose body of work suggests a slowly expanding universe rather than the linear march of progress. “I’m convinced that my ideas haven’t really changed since the ’70s,” he says one recent afternoon, and the statement rings true even though the particulars of his music have in fact changed many times over, undermining his own claim with hours of countervailing evidence.

The latest for the jury is Snakeoil, which sounds both uniquely like a Tim Berne album and precisely like no other Tim Berne album. Recorded in a top-flight studio with a painstakingly rehearsed ensemble—Berne on alto, Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith on drums—the album is his first studio release in eight years. Compositionally speaking it contains some of the most inviting and reflective work of his career, with a tonal palette that suggests modern classical music and an approach to counterpoint that, by Berne’s standards, skews unusually delicate. And because it’s on ECM—the prestigious German jazz and classical label whose roster includes Keith Jarrett and Charles Lloyd—the album has already had some practical ramifications for Berne, whose last proper stint on a major label was in the late 1980s, on Columbia.

During an interview that begins in a neatly furnished Brooklyn brownstone, the longtime headquarters of his own indie label, Screwgun Records, Berne brews what he calls an “emergency” pot of coffee, warding against jetlag and exhaustion: He’s just back from a grueling European tour in support of the new album. The tour wasn’t any different than usual in terms of turnout or venues played, he observes; the album is still too new to have influenced his bookings. “But I was doing all these interviews, which I haven’t done in years, with people who wouldn’t have done it before. Because of the credibility thing.”

He seems appreciative but a little wary about this turn of events, which, of course, is true to form. “I always felt like if the music’s interesting, it’ll be a really slow fire and people will find out about it,” he says. “But it just wasn’t my priority. I’m not against publicity, but it’s almost embarrassing, getting a lot of press. It sort of scares me, in a way.”

Perhaps this runs the risk of terrifying Berne, then, but it demands to be said nonetheless: Snakeoil is a magnificent album, a standout not only in his lengthy discography but also in the recent outpouring of left-of-center jazz releases. In its carefully shifting balance of finely wrought composition and open improvisation, it reflects both a longstanding priority for Berne and a current preoccupation in modern jazz. In its impressive execution, it reflects something else: Berne’s tireless pursuit of the limber durability that can only come from the right kind of working band.

Born in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1954, berne was initially a child of soul music, especially the righteous output of Stax and Motown. He picked up the saxophone relatively late, in college, which happened to be the same fateful stretch when he first heard Julius Hemphill, the alto saxophonist and founder of the World Saxophone Quartet. There isn’t an album more central to the Tim Berne story than Dogon A.D., Hemphill’s 1972 debut, which was reissued on CD in a limited edition last year by International Phonograph, after decades of unavailability in any commercial format.

The earthiness and funkiness of Dogon A.D. gripped Berne instantly; its spirit of exploration held him in its thrall. When he moved to New York City, he wasted little time before seeking Hemphill out, becoming both an apprentice and a protégé. “He was just so creative and he was a real contrarian,” Berne recalled of his mentor in a 2009 interview for pianist Ethan Iverson’s blog, Do the Math. “He just took everything at face value. He wasn’t political about it at all and definitely wasn’t a careerist. He never played it safe.”

If every sentence in that description seems equally true of Berne, it’s hardly an accident: He has patterned his musical life after Hemphill’s example, from the soulful physicality of his sound to the rugged independence of his business model. “I helped him put out a couple records,” Berne recalls, over lunch at a casual French bistro. “What I learned was that it’s a lot easier to put out a record than it is to complain about not having one. That it’s more constructive. That you don’t have to wait for somebody else to do it, which can be a really destructive thing, just sitting around and getting bitter.” Empire Records was Berne’s first independent label, inspired by Hemphill’s imprint, Mbari, and formed in 1979. It was the first expression of an ethos that Berne would rekindle with Screwgun.

In the interim, a period spanning the 1980s and the first half of the ’90s, he built a reputation for uncompromising art, most visibly during his brief stint on Columbia, which came about through the advocacy of guitarist Gary Lucas, an acquaintance from Syracuse. Fulton Street Maul, Berne’s 1987 Columbia debut, featured guitarist Bill Frisell, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Alex Cline, and introduced a broader public to the propulsive convolutions of his music: Jon Pareles began a review in the New York Times by writing, “It’s only February, but one of the year’s most important jazz albums has just been released.” There was enough press along those lines that Columbia let Berne make another album, Sanctified Dreams, with Roberts, trumpeter Herb Robertson, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Joey Baron. Then the label unceremoniously got out of the Tim Berne business. (Both albums have been out of print for ages.) The only lasting vestige of Berne’s time at Columbia is his affiliation with art director Steve Byram, who designed both albums’ packaging and has stayed with him ever since, as a close creative partner.

Berne recorded next for JMT, a German label run by Stefan Winter, which had a distribution deal with Polygram. This was a productive stretch but it, too, came to an end after Winter sold the company to a division of Polygram that shut it down in 1995. (Those JMT releases have since been reissued by Winter & Winter.) Berne started up Screwgun in the immediate aftermath, taking what felt like the opposite aesthetic tact. Where JMT had featured glossy production, the inaugural Screwgun release was Unwound, a three-CD live album, adapted from bootleg recordings, that captured the virtuoso savagery of his band Bloodcount: Michael Formanek on bass, Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet and Jim Black on drums. It came packaged in industrial cardboard and delivered the aural equivalent of a brickbat to the head. (This should not be construed as a complaint; I heard Unwound and was immediately hooked.) Subsequent albums on Screwgun would reflect a more meticulous sonic design, especially after Berne began working with guitarist David Torn as producer and engineer.

Given his history of label disappointments and Screwgun’s relative DIY success, it may seem surprising that Berne now has an album on ECM, which operates under the corporate umbrella of Universal. It so happens that Berne’s wife, Sarah Humphries, is the American label head of ECM—but if anything, that potential conflict of interest has led all involved parties to be even more circumspect. Manfred Eicher, who founded ECM as an independent and still exerts full creative license, has obviously long been familiar with Berne’s playing. But it was only in 2005 that the saxophonist logged an ECM credit, on Prezens, a head-spinning album by Torn that featured Berne’s two most active partners at the time, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey.

The momentum of the saxophonist’s ECM association has picked up since, with Berne appearing on The Rub and Spare Change, Formanek’s 2010 album, also with Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver. That experience was uniformly positive, and opened the door to a boomlet of ECM releases by Berne and his affiliates: Taborn’s exquisite solo-piano recital, Avenging Angel, was one of the more acclaimed releases of 2011, and he’s set to record a trio album in June. The Formanek band has recorded its follow-up, and it seems likely that Berne’s current group will do the same.

In an experiential sense, the arc of Berne’s career has primed him to appreciate Eicher’s mindset as a label chief. “His thing is, quality deserves a market,” Berne says. “That’s the difference between him and other labels I’ve been on. They see themselves in a very limited way: ‘Yeah, this is art, so it’s not going to sell; we already know that.’ Whereas Manfred says, ‘Oh, this is really good, I believe in it; therefore I want it to sell.’ None of these other guys do that. By the time the record comes out, it’s over. You hear the phrase ‘This is really hard music to sell’ from everybody. And that plays into itself. That’s why I started Screwgun, because I kind of believed I could do better than was being done, by being passionate about it. Just seeing what it would be like if you actually put it out in a positive way instead of just, ‘Well, here it is; here’s some more weird shit, good luck.’”

He notes that his new label affiliation has yielded a new audience for his music: ECM completists, new-music partisans, people whose curiosity was piqued. And he says that one thing he noticed on the recent tour is that there were representatives from the label at every gig. He sees that commitment—which starts at the top, with Eicher—as a crucial advantage. “If you believe in what you’re selling, you could sell anything,” he says.

Which brings us to Snakeoil.

Berne has worked with a spectacularly broad array of musicians over the last 35 years, but he has also cultivated a nucleus of close collaborators, including some, like Robertson and Roberts, who will probably always belong to that club. John Zorn included him on a couple of notorious albums in the 1980s, though the two have since traveled on parallel tracks, intersecting rarely. Nels Cline, now best known as the guitarist in Wilco, joined him in forming a free-improvising trio with drummer Jim Black. (As BB&C, they released a blistering live album, The Veil, on Cryptogramophone last year.) A few years ago Iverson and drummer David King, two-thirds of the Bad Plus, recorded and toured with Berne and Roberts as an entity called Buffalo Collision. (Hear the results on a fine 2008 Screwgun album, Duck.) There are dozens of other such groupings, some more lasting than others.

But when it comes to a band—meaning a stable, committed entity larger than the conglomerate of its musical personalities—Berne has stubborn, exacting standards. In the same way that some musicians tell their story by listing titles in a discography, Berne can encapsulate his by rattling off a series of bands: “Fractured Fairy Tales, Miniature, Caos Totale, Bloodcount, Big Satan, Science Friction/Hard Cell. And this,” he adds, meaning the group on Snakeoil. “That’s probably it, in terms of bands I’ve written for. Seems like it’s a three-to-five-year thing. Usually what happens is, after a year everybody in the band becomes a lot busier, and then it’s a little harder to keep the focus.”

The band that appears on Snakeoil was formerly known as Los Totopos, a reference to a sort of corn tortilla from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It has been together for a few years, but until the album’s release it only played around New York, mainly in Brooklyn.

If there was a primary catalyst in the formation of the band, it begins with Mitchell, an intensely focused pianist who grew up obsessing over Berne’s music. At one point during his schooling, he sent a note to Berne asking for the scores of two of his most complicated pieces—a request so earnest and perverse that Berne felt compelled to comply. “And then I never heard from him again,” Berne chuckles. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s so weird, that after all that, the guy never got in touch with me.’ I heard he’d moved to New York and come to some of my gigs. When we finally hooked up, I said, ‘How come you never got in touch with me?’ He said, ‘I just wasn’t ready.’ Which was amazing.”

Mitchell isn’t the only musician to come into Berne’s orbit after admiring him from afar; Taborn, his predecessor at the piano, actually has a similar story. But there’s no question that Mitchell comes from a place of unusual expertise. “I knew early on that there was a certain amount of hyperdetail and a certain amount of openness in Tim’s music,” the pianist reflects. “That said, it didn’t really prepare me for when I first started to play with him. Saying it was a shock would be pitching it a bit high, but having listened to it a lot was only the mildest preparation for having to learn it off the page.”

Smith had a more indirect connection to Berne before they met: In the early-to-mid-aughts he played in Trio Convulsant, a band with bassist Trevor Dunn and guitarist Mary Halvorson. He remembers Dunn telling him that a big inspiration for the group was Berne’s Caos Totale. “And a few years before that,” Smith adds, “I was living in the Bay Area and I used to check some Tim Berne records out at the Berkeley Public Library. Tom Rainey was on one record with Taborn, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if I could ever play this music.’”

“I really liked his attitude,” Berne recalls of Smith, whom he met through Halvorson. “I remember we got together and ended up rehearsing some Julius thing for a really long time, and he took it really seriously even though he didn’t know if we would ever play together again. There was no gig. It was the same thing with Matt, and with Oscar.” (Noriega, a saxophonist and virtuoso clarinetist, lives in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Berne, with whom he now has a near-telepathic frontline connection; he’s also a close friend and collaborator to Chris Speed, who fulfilled a similar role in Bloodcount.)

Snakeoil opens with “Simple City,” a song that seems to materialize as if from a fog. More specifically, it begins with a series of artfully tentative chords at the piano, before a circuitous motif clicks into place. Berne doesn’t enter until the three-minute mark, improvising against this evocative backdrop, recognizable within his first fluttery phrase. Over the course of its six long tracks, the album explores a vague but self-contained thematic realm—sometimes with the aggressively tangled counterpoint that’s a longtime Berne hallmark, as on “Scanners,” but often with a more haunted and suspended air. Part of this feeling stems from the centrality of piano, which hasn’t previously been common in Berne’s oeuvre. Another part of it stems from his decision to pursue a chamber sensibility, with Smith playing tympanis and other orchestral percussion. “One thing I tried to do on this record is be a little more specific in terms of harmony,” Berne says. “I wanted to have some stuff that just had more specific implications, even though they’re not chord changes. There’s chords; there’s something going on that’s more specific than just ‘Let’s play.’”

Mitchell makes a similar point, with some qualifications. “Going back to the mid-’80s, Tim Berne’s music was always really interesting harmonically, even if it wasn’t based on a concept of changes,” he observes. “To me it’s more explicitly harmonic with a piano, and he tends to give me all the parts everyone’s playing. He had the band with Craig, and I think it started then. It’s a continuation of that, where the harmony is more obviously colorful, whereas the older stuff was more counterpoint-linear. This is still contrapuntal, but it’s counterpoint coming together in some harmonic areas that hang out for a while.”

Berne has a loose methodology for assembling a band. “I’m looking for weirdos,” he says. “It’s almost like I’m looking for rejects, the kind of people who wouldn’t be the first choice for something. People who don’t obey orders very well, or don’t just do the obvious thing.” Interestingly, the crucible of working with Berne often turns these misfits into appealing prospects for broader circulation: guitarist Marc Ducret is one example, and Speed and Black are two others. Taborn, after grooving hard on keyboards in Berne’s bassless Science Friction band, was hired to do exactly the same in Underground, a group led by saxophonist Chris Potter. It’s surely not lost on Berne that Mitchell recently joined trumpeter Dave Douglas’ new quintet.

Meanwhile the sound of the Snakeoil band has been evolving at a rapid clip: Smith recently added vibraphone to his arsenal on tour, delving into tonality as well as texture. And Berne has written more than enough new music for another few albums. But of course there are all the diversions of life as a working musician: “My sideman activity is up about 1,000 percent,” he says, citing not only Formanek but also Torn, Smith and Mitchell, as well as Ducret and bassist Drew Gress, all former members of his bands.

“I kind of don’t want to waste time now and lose this,” he says of the current group. “Because I know in a couple of years these guys are going to be too busy. So I want to take advantage of it, and document something, and have it actually get heard by more than a few people. I mean, you’ve got to have an audience. This music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I want people to listen to it; I want them to like it. It’s not a condescending thing at all. I’m always bummed out if people don’t like it. It’s not like, ‘You’re too stupid to understand this.’ I’m hoping that they aren’t.”

Originally published in June 2012

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