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Tim Berne’s Bloodcount: Unwound

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Tim Berne’s relationships with U.S. corporate jazz labels have ranged from a late ’80s dalliance with Columbia that produced two albums, including Sanctified Dreams (Columbia’s unloading of Berne’s catalog to Koch International is a telling measure of how they value the memories) and a more entangled affair with Polygram (vis a vis a licensing agreement with JMT) that dragged on for several years into the mid ’90s. In both cases, the arguably irrational exuberance that brought the parties together dissipated in the face of unrealized sales expectations and Berne’s progressive movement away from neatly assembled albums of catchy, off-center tunes. So, Berne is back where he started, running his own label (Screwgun is his second; the fondly remembered Empire launched Berne in the early ’80s); in a move that’s as bold as his music, Berne has inaugurated Screwgun with Unwound, an imposing three-disc set of Berne’s Bloodcount recorded at ’96 gigs in Berlin and Ann Arbor.

Bloodcount (Berne, alto and baritone saxes; Chris Speed, tenor and clarinet; Michael Formanek, bass; Jim Black, drums) specializes in the long form, pieces that run over 20 minutes as a rule, which segue a wide range of written and improvised materials in consistently unanticipated ways. Even when Bloodcount kicks things off with a relatively straight-ahead theme like the jaunty, elastic blues on “Loose Ends,” the quartet quickly takes it off-road. A few of the pieces (“Bloodcount,” “The Other,” and “What Are The Odds?”) were first recorded for ’94’s three-volume The Paris Concert (JMT); the often-droll notated materials are more crisply rendered on the new versions, and the improvisations are edgier. Unwound is a hard-core album, cubed.

’87’s Sanctified Dreams is a pivotal album in Berne’s discography. While his affinities, both as writer and player, to the Ornette-Hemphill trajectory were still very plainspoken on pieces like “Velchro Man,” “Elastic Lad” and “Mac’s Groove,” he was articulating his now mature structural fluidity, and expanding his timbral palette with an exceptionally versatile quintet (Herb Robertson, brass; Hank Roberts, cello; Mark Dresser, bass; Joey Baron, drums). Berne still kicked pieces off with a snappy head, as on “Blue Alpha;” but, instead of using it as a springboard for a string of equally snappy solos, he uses it as a trapdoor to some harrowing improvisations. Obviously, Sanctified Dreams was too out for Columbia then, or now for that matter; kudos to Koch International for