Tim Berne – INSOMNIA (CF 215)
For over three decades, saxophonist Tim Berne has proved himself to be one of the more consistently intriguing ensemble leaders in free jazz. With Berne, it’s always about the group: how the voices fit together, how they extend the vocabulary of free jazz, and how they develop a collective sound that is more than just a string of torrid solos. While he’s always assembled killer small groups, he’s rarely had the opportunity to front a larger ensemble, so it’s hard to believe this session sat unissued for well over a decade, particularly with such an all-star cast: Bloodcount, Berne’s core working group at the time with clarinettist Chris Speed, bassist Michael Formanek and percussionist Jim Black, was augmented with long-time musical partner Marc Ducret on 12-string guitar, Erik Friedlander on cello, Dominique Pifarély on violin and Baikida Carroll on trumpet. The music sounds as fresh now as it did back in 1997 when it was recorded.
Berne’s open-ended compositional forms provide the structures for the eight improvisers as they make their way across 30-minute readings of “The Proposal” and “oPEN, cOMA”, traversing quirky sonorities and shifting rhythmic cells and massing together for collective passages which break open for trenchant solos by each of the musicians. Speed’s clarinet plays off Berne’s strident alto and dark baritone to great effect, Ducret’s steely 12-string guitar makes for an intriguing break from his skronky electric playing, and Friedlander and Pifarély switch easily from cutting solo work to lush arco and bristling counterpoint. As free as things get, there’s always an underpinning of open groove reminiscent of Berne’s mentor Julius Hemphill, and considering how integral Baikida Carroll was to Hemphill’s music, it’s astonishing that this is the only time he and Berne have recorded together. The trumpeter’s rich tone and penetrating melodicism are prominent throughout, particularly in an awe-inspiring duo with Friedlander half way through “oPEN, cOMA.” Of course, Formanek and Black are the indefatigable backbone to the session, propelling the music with a pliant sense of time while adding their distinctive individual voices to the mix. There are times when the music sprawls a bit, but Berne and his musicians know just how to turn things around and pull the improvisations back in to focus.