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The Best of Tim Berne

A brief guide to the saxophonist's most notable work

Tim Berne
Tim Berne (Photo courtesy of ECM Records)

As a Leader

Fulton Street Maul (Columbia, 1987)

Berne’s brief tenure at Columbia yielded this expansive collection featuring guitarist Bill Frisell. “Unknown Disaster” kicks off with Frisell’s sonic freakout over cellist Hank Roberts’ urgent bowing and Alex Cline’s propulsive percussion, while “Icicles Revisited” ventures into more atmospheric chamber territory and “Betsy” evolves from Tuvan-inspired vocal drones.

Unwound (Screwgun, 1996)

This quartet was Berne’s primary vehicle throughout the 1990s, expressing his compositional ideas in their most monumental fashion. Unwound sprawls out over three discs, with the 13-minute “Loose Ends” feeling like a jaunty miniature compared to the 20-40-minute epics that make up most of the set. The collection’s raw live sound captures the avant-garage interplay of the leader’s tartly jagged alto, Chris Speed’s skittering tenor, Michael Formanek’s burly bass and Jim Black’s scrapyard drumming.

The sublime and. (Thirsty Ear, 2003)


The myriad hardcore-style band names under which Berne operates have often demarcated a reshuffling of the same basic elements, and Science Friction brings together three of his core collaborators in an electrifying quartet. Keyboardist Craig Taborn, guitarist Marc Ducret and drummer Tom Rainey offer the composer his widest-ranging palette, which he uses to dense, livewire advantage on this two-disc live set.

Snakeoil (ECM, 2012)

On his leader debut for ECM, Berne finds common ground between his own idiosyncratic voice and producer Manfred Eicher’s notoriously airier aesthetic. Working with a newer set of accomplices, Berne’s knotty phrasing is intact but placed within a freer-floating, more intimate space. That ambience coaxes lithe, heady improvisations from the young quartet comprising clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and percussionist Ches Smith.


As a Sideman

Spy vs. Spy (Elektra, 1989)

A Downtown alto duel in honor of a legendarily out-thinking alto forebear, Zorn’s tribute to Ornette Coleman assaults 17 of the saxophonist’s compositions with breakneck punk abandon. Accompanied by the pummeling rhythm section of bassist Mark Dresser and drummers Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher, Zorn and Berne maneuver Coleman’s sharp angles at a screeching pace that doesn’t entirely avoid smashing into a few walls along the way.

The Irrational Numbers
(Premonition, 2007)

One-third of Berne’s improvisational trio Paraphrase, impossibly in-demand bassist Gress reassembled his quintet with Berne, Taborn, Rainey and trumpeter Ralph Alessi for the follow-up to 2005’s 7 Black Butterflies. The album is a more tightly grooving affair than Berne’s more jagged-edged outings, showcasing Gress’ gift for shifting between inside and outside inventions.


Prezens (ECM, 2007)

Here, guitarist and producer David Torn dissects and reassembles his sessions with Berne, Taborn and Rainey, electronically layering, looping and reconfiguring the improvisations. The result plays with ideas of mutation and decay, using the recording process as the first step in a postmodern sonic collage.

The Rub and Spare Change
(ECM, 2010)

Longtime collaborator Formanek took a rare step into the leader role with this tense, darkly tinged session. The pieces all show evidence of Berne’s angular influence, though Formanek steers the proceedings into more tightly focused, rhythmically taut areas. Still, the 17-minute “Tonal Suite” is clearly rooted in Bloodcount’s perpetual-momentum aesthetic.


Read Nate Chinen’s 2012 profile of Tim Berne.

Originally Published