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Tim Berne: Science Friction

Tim Berne has never been a control freak, but the defiantly freeform settings he liked to work in during the 1990s seem pretty distant all of a sudden. The saxophonist has now not only embraced composition to an extent unprecedented in his history, he also allows guitarist/producer David Torn to digitize, filter and cut and paste his music into completely new sound objects. Both the newly compositional Berne and the digital Torn make strong showings on three recent recordings.

The dominant voice on Berne’s The Sevens, for example, is not his atomizing baritone or bludgeoning tenor but rather the clear-toned, classically-trained sax group the ARTE Quartett. The Quartett opens the CD with “Repulsion,” a through-composed work that Berne conceived at the piano. Berne’s characteristically tangled concurrent melodies are here, as well as touches of the World Saxophone Quartet’s disembodied sax-section sound, but there’s also a gentler approach not often present in his work. Berne and guitarist Marc Ducret pop in from time to time, in improvisational roles, as does Torn, who does beautiful things with fragments from the Quartett before he lets club-music ambition get the better of him.

Those looking for meatier chunks of improvisation might prefer the sprawling, double-disc set Open, Coma, which features Berne, Ducret and trumpeter Herb Robertson with the Copenhagen Art Ensemble. Berne tries his hand at large-scale orchestration here, but with the shortest tune (out of four) coming in at just under a half hour, there is plenty of room for big solos. The Danes more than prove their mettle in this setting, which ranges all over the map. Even within the course of a single piece, the group will move from large-scale free improvisation to unaccompanied solo voice to a funky, spacious and Mileslike ’70s sound. Berne’s writing has surprisingly mainstream moments, as when he pits reeds against horns in some sections. Other times, the orchestra sounds like an extension of Berne’s own horn, as on “Impacted Wisdom,” where the band blows on long, wending unison lines that could be orchestrations of the saxophonist’s solos. What makes this recording, however, are the solos. Ducret’s fusion of Big Fun-era John McLaughlin and Buddy Guy on “The Legend of P-1” is extremely enjoyable, though his subsequent turn on “Impacted Wisdom,” a deft solo that nearly feigns the sound of a quickly detuning guitar, does it one better. Robertson (ribald and burbling) and Berne (brawny and delicate by turns) do not make slouches of themselves, and neither does trombonist Mads Hyhne nor clarinetist Peter Fuglsang-two Danes who take full advantage of the solo space Berne allots them.

Fans of Berne’s earlier work will probably want to start with Science Friction, which features much more of Berne in tighter, harder and more condensed settings. Here, Berne tends to break his tunes down into short melodic loops and dronelike funk-hints again of ’70s Miles, but also of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time-leaving him and Ducret free to reinforce the pounding or break it down. Keyboard/piano player Craig Taborn spends little time in the foreground but goes a long way in filling out the sound. Tom Rainey is the perfect drummer for a sound like this-his manic beat seems simultaneously to propagate and frustrate momentum. Torn leaves his deepest mark on this one, crafting ambient soundscapes here or fragmenting whole chunks of music there. This is also the most unpredictable of the three. Ducret’s nearly classical-guitarlike coda on “Huevos” and Torn’s CD-skipping sound collage on “The Mallomar Maneuvre” seemingly come from nowhere but still manage to sound completely organic.

Originally Published