You can get lost in a Tim Berne composition-and not in the pejorative sense. The alto saxophonist writes in jagged meters where instruments dart around one another or comingle for a split-second before moving on into parallel universes. He works so frequently and successfully with extended compositions that a Berne piece clocking in less than 10 minutes almost seems like it doesn’t reach its full potential.
Naturally with music of this length, repeated listens reveal greater nuance almost every time. Berne likes to use different movements in his work, with a soloist cutting loose as the rest of the band changes the musical backdrop behind him. What sounds initially like a strange, arhythmical line eventually proves to be the direction of the next section. And as complex and twisted as he writes, Berne’s bands always make it swing as hard as a 4/4 groove.
On 2001’s The Shell Game (Thirsty Ear/Blue Series), Berne’s alto was recorded in the company of Craig Taborn’s keyboards and electronics and Tom Rainey’s drums. In 2002, guitarist Marc Ducret-once a member of Berne’s astounding group Bloodcount-joined them for Science Friction (Screwgun), which found the rest of the band becoming more active in the compositions, rather than accompanists. The two discs of The Sublime And., recorded at the end of a spring 2003 tour in Switzerland, finds them fully integrated into the music and one another’s playing.
Ducret and Taborn both serve double duty, holding down the harmonic end of the music and playing lead lines. In the opening “Van Gundy’s Retreat,” the guitarist plays a countermelody to Berne and supports Taborn, who plays Fender Rhodes as well as laptop and “virtual organ” throughout the album. Taborn fills out the group’s sound with adventurous lines and textures, occasionally touching on early-’70s fusion-with more overdrive.
The group revisits two tunes from Science Friction album: “Jalapeno Diplomacy,” sounds raunchier than the original-with Berne’s explosive tone dancing around his bandmates after stating the medium tempo melody that keeps threatening to cut loose into something faster. It gradually segues into “Traction,” stretching the piece to 20 absorbing minutes. The whisper-to-a-scream contours of “Clownfinger” make up the second half of a 30-minute track that begins with “Mrs. Subliminal,” a tune marked by a Ducret solo of bangs, scrapers and pops that retain an abstract melodic quality. Rainey constantly propels the band with ferocity similar to Bloodcount’s Jim Black, though Rainey never gets as thunderous as his predecessor.
Whether Berne emits clipped, octave-jumping phrases or agonized wails, he’s never anything short of spellbinding. Why, after more than two decades of albums, he hasn’t been given greater recognition for his work is anyone’s guess.