Bruno Chevillon/Tim Berne – Old and Unwise (CF 221)
Tim Berne – Snakeoil (ECM 2234)
After keeping a low profile of late, working mostly as sax-for hire in co-op bands, New York alto saxophonist Tim Berne asserts himself more conspicuously with these revealing projects. Old and Unwise is a set of unvarnished improvisations between Berne and French bassist Bruno Chevillon. Recorded seven months later, and his first studio date in eight years, Snakeoil introduces a new Berne combo, which tellingly doesn’t include a bass player. Instead Berne’s alto forays are harmonized with Oscar Noriega’s clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell’s piano and Ches Smith’s drums.
A major stylist, Chevillon often works with baritone saxophonist François Corneloup, pianist Stéphan Oliva and guitarist Marc Ducret, the last of whom is a long-time Berne collaborator. With the judicious strength and skill of a bassist like Paul Chambers, Chevillon’s outlook is both abstract and comprehensive, as likely to be expressed in wood-smacking power or sul ponticello slices as pulsing twangs or balanced walking.
For his part, the saxophonist’s taut expressiveness cycles though a variety of sequences and segments. Harsh split tones and reed bites are raisons d’être with enough space left to examine and illuminate the partials of many tones. On the other hand measured cries and trills add to the balladic or narrative portions of his solos. A track such as the concluding “Single Entendre” for instance, matches bagpipe-like air releases and pressurized tongue stops from Berne with string clicks and reverberations created by the bassist vibrating a small stick and his hands among the strings and against the bass’s belly.
Meanwhile the segmented “Au Centre Du Corps” features Chevillon’s spiccato string motions that solidify into powerful plucks as a counterbalance to Berne’s abstract, altissimo timbre-analysis. As he works his way down the scale with double tonguing the altoist almost sound as if he’s quoting “A Love Supreme”.
Widened syncopated phrasing resulting from Berne’s tongue stops and tone variations reach a climax on the appropriately titled “Chance Taken”. As the bass line moves from string-vibrations to thickly paced pops, Berne’s rubato and tonal advances move forward. Breaking up the line with a few altissimo licks, the reedist pushes out first single notes, then complete clusters, while apparently examining and testing every reed property.
With more tonal colors available, Berne has a different strategy on Snakeoil; plus all the compositions but one are his. Taking advantage of Smith’s clockwork-style percussion, Smith’s metrical chording and Noriega’s harmonized glissandi, this is a less frenetic disc, but with equivalent power sublimated just below the surface.
After two years of gestation. It’s no surprise the performance is convincing. But at the same time these New York-based players are used to interpreting various visions. Mitchell, long interested in Berne’s music, also plays with the likes of guitarist Mary Halvorson, and saxophonist Darius Jones. Smith, who is in several bands with Mitchell, has also worked with Halvorson, as well as rock band Mr. Bugle and saxophonist John Tchicai. Noriega has played everything from interpretations of Charles Ives’ compositions to the Mexican-inspired Banda De Los Muertos, as well as gigging with drummer Paul Motian. On Snakeoil he’s most likely to use one of his clarinets to harmonize melodiously with Berne’s alto. At the same time his gnarly squeaks and peeps can provide a pointed obbligato to the others work.
Take “Yield”, co-written by Berne and Mitchell and “Spectacle” as exemplars. Both evolve with a free-floating mellowness which includes harmonized reeds and piano key strumming. On the former the textures move forward in dribs and drabs without losing the pulse as Mitchell’s rhythmic dexterity is matched by Smith’s vibraharp bounces. A broken-chord clarinet line has already glided across the low-frequency piano chords as Berne’s buoyant obbligato becomes screechier and more irregularly paced. It finally moves southwards until Smith hits a backbeat and the four modulates back to the free-flowing head.
In contrast, the theme of “Spectacle” is broken up with key clips, bongo-like reverberations and bass drum smacks. Noriega’s supple clarinet lines balance atop Smith’s clatter and pops until the reedist begins spinning out pressurized and staccato theme variations joined by Berne in near-scream mode. As the piano cadenzas toughen and the drum work hardens a two-horn fortissimo run signals the finale.
Among the tremolo piano keys chiming, clipping and fanning, the tandem reed stretches and trills and measured percussion pace, Berne has managed to create a self-contained program which is sophisticated without being sloppy and mercurial without being monotonous or jarring. There is enough thematic material to keep the program moving on an even keel, and enough exploratory kineticism with unexpected instrumental tones to keep things interesting. Furthermore there’s enough skillful instrumental virtuosity to showcase each man’s particular talents.
Finally under his own name again, Tim Berne is back in top form.