Tim Berne – Insomnia (CF 215)
In the medical world, a blood count is a clinical tool, a method of aggregating data in order to make a diagnosis. In short, it’s a way of picturing the lay of the land and from there determining the best path forward. Alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s Bloodcount—Berne, multi-reedist Chris Speed, bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Jim Black and sometimes guitarist Marc Ducret—spent much of the mid to late 1990s doing just that: wiping away dusty clichés in the uptown vs. downtown debates of the era, erring on the side of idiosyncrasy, in order to see just how much life was left in small group improvised music’s last heaving breath of the century. The results, usually elaborated in 15 to 30-minute prognoses, were startling, energetic and always more structured than the open-ended running time would have you believe.
Much like John Zorn’s Masada, Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus, the Vandermark 5 or other long-running bands of the era, Bloodcount developed a unique sound, steeped in its leader’s vocabulary, from the tics of Berne’s rhythmic attack to the needle-sharp intervallic leaps of his melodies. Particularly through a series of legendary live dates (all made available through Berne’s Screwgun Records), the group made a name for itself with long, winding dissertations on the shape of jazz to come. These by and large alternated between two primary modes: muscular, up-tempo romps, the reedmen’s swirling, staccato shards roiling atop Formanek’s meaty walking bass, and long, legato sections of melodic development teetering on the edge of rhythmic collapse. The results are something like a free-form funk workout featuring leading avant improvisers, shot through with a dose of DIY/punk sensibility. It is tense stuff, held together by the alternation of its arrangements.
With literally hours of the band on tape, it seemed its recorded legacy was more or less complete. Which is why this album comes as quite a surprise: muscled up to an octet (Ducret is back on 12-string acoustic guitar, plus violinist Dominique Pifarely, cellist Erik Friedlander and trumpeter Baikida Carroll), the band entered a studio in the summer of 1997 and ran through two 30-minute extended improvisations. Released over a dozen years after its recording, it adds a whole new wrinkle to our understanding of what this band was capable of.
The most obvious difference is the way this configuration offers Berne timbral luxuries not otherwise available in the small group setting. Of course the scurrying, four-minute cello/violin duet in “the proposal” is something not normally heard on a Bloodcount record, but the string players’ searching, tripartite conversation with Chris Speed’s clarinet on “oPEN, cOMA” is far more startling for the way it expands an otherwise standard moment for the band. Similarly, Ducret’s decision to stick to 12-string acoustic, cutting out his usual open-ringing dis-chords, leads him into territory by turns droning, lumbering and hollow-bodied percussive. Carroll’s trumpet is the most obviously jarring piece of the puzzle—after gurgling his way over the long-held notes of the reeds and strings at the beginning of the album, he explodes into the opening solo, building to a strong crescendo that the band later struggles to reach again. During the highpoints of this session, the band finds ways to weave these alternate timbres into the structural fabric of what makes Bloodcount music so unique and so appealing.
Drummer Jim Black deserves special mention in this regard. Always the gadfly within the group, here he is especially so, stubbornly refusing to simply “keep time.” Instead, he finds unceasingly original ways to trouble the motifs, cells and repetitions that rise up around him. Even faced with the unfamiliar instrumentation here, every time one of the soloists gets comfortable with a phrase or a rhythmic resolution, Black has a cymbal crash, snare snap or shuddering off-beat accent to shake things up. He often acts, in short, as the arranger of the group. The listener would do well to take note each time they realize the dynamics of a piece have shifted dramatically; hit the rewind button and pay special attention to Black through the transition. It is no coincidence that he closes out the hour of music with a clattering unaccompanied solo of his own.
Being the first (and only) time this particular octet entered the studio, there are some droning sections that take too long to resolve, almost as if the core quintet is afraid to step on the toes of any of its guests. Friedlander, lost somewhere in between Formanek’s steady pulse and Ducret’s surging chords, never quite seems to find his footing in the ensemble sections. But these are the kind of inevitable kinks more time playing together might conceivably have ironed out. They certainly do not outweigh the value of having an entire hour of previously unreleased material from one of the strongest core quintets of the 1990s. Especially material with such atypical texture.
One of the joys of Bloodcount’s music, or Berne’s more generally, is its tendency to suggest possibilities and then jettison those expectations with the next breath in favor of an equally fertile alternative. This date does similar duty within the band’s discography: certainly not the definitive statement on what Bloodcount (+3 or +4) could have been, it does suggest a whole spiraling series of alleyways worth a glimpse. Or in other words, it’s just a mighty fun hour of music.