Thursday, January 06, 2011

On record: Tim Berne's "7x"

Like The Five Year Plan, Tim Berne's second album, 7x—recorded about nine months later, in January of 1980, with a similar supporting cast—is a grab bag of styles. (And like its predecessor, it's affordably downloadable from Screwgun either alone or as one fifth of The Empire Box.) Berne's still throwing a lot against the wall to see what will stick. Interestingly, though, some of what's he tossing out is clearly identifiable as Tim Berne Music, the sort that would crop up on his Columbia records of the mid-’80s and beyond. The germs of the late style are here, as are several convincing illustrations of his burgeoning saxophone mastery.

Listening to 7x today, the tracks I enjoyed most were, respectively, the busiest and calmest pieces on the record. The title track starts off as a boisterous swinger: A complex head leads into a series of solos, with Vinny Golia blasting off first on baritone and working up to a sandpapery froth. Berne follows suit, and at this point I thought I had the track pegged—raucous swing, everyone takes their turn up top, and so on and so forth.

A magical turnaround occurs around 5:30, though, as "7x" veers into a funky 5/4 fusion breakdown, topped off by Nels Cline's atmospheric shred. What seems at first like a quizzical tangent gradually becomes a coherent set change. Berne stakes out this territory and sets up camp there: He lets Cline have his say, but re-marshalls the band for an out-head that's completely different than the opening. What we have here is a prog-funk stomp that, though still pretty primitive-sounding, definitely presages the mature Tim Berne's obsession with angular groove. I just love the surprise-attack aspect of this song: You think you're cruising along in familiar head-solos-head territory and then all of a sudden, Berne swipes you from the side, reorienting your ear entirely. "Down with formulaic structure"—one of the aesthetic credos of late Berne—had already reared its head.

You hear something similar on "A Pearl in the Oliver C.," an otherwise entirely different piece. This is easily the most straightforwardly beautiful performance on either The Five Year Plan or 7x—a hushed hymn, scored for the trio of Berne, Golia and Roberto Miranda (on arco). Unlike the quieter pieces on The Five Year Plan—which partake of a sprawling, ritualistic vibe that Berne reexamines on 7x's "The Water People"—"Pearl" is brief and focused. As with the title track, you think you know what you're in for until Berne throws a curveball. Berne plays alone for half of the piece's four minutes, reaffirming his interest in unaccompanied performance, established at the end of The Five Year Plan's opening track, "The Glasco Cowboy." He sounds intensely poignant, passionate but not overheated, balancing urgency and tenderness. When Golia and Miranda enter, it's something of a shock, but a glorious one, like flipping on a light and realizing you've entered a cathedral. The three sing a quiet, sad song, over too soon. This is a stunning piece, and though I can't remember hearing anything like it on any later Berne records, it does ring an important bell due to the fact that employs the favorite Berne device—employed in Bloodcount and various other projects—of "Let's improvise first and then make our way to the theme." I really enjoy that tactic, as it results in the composed material feeling earned rather than canned.

The other tracks run a wide gamut. Opener "Chang" was a real head-scratcher for me. It's a sort of festive, Latinish piece with a catchy theme but no structural wrinkles, just a straight head-solos-head vibe. That's no crime, of course; it's just that pretty much every other track on either of these records offers something extra. "Flies" also features a conventional jazz structure, but it has a lot more going for it, namely a really fun head—prancing, intricate and driven by brushes on the snare drum, foreshadowing later Berne pieces like "Hong Kong Sad Song" from 1989's Fractured Fairy Tales—and a home run of a Berne solo. The rhythm section of Miranda and drummer Alex Cline lays it down nice and easy, and Berne just bops along, sounding as soulful and relaxed as an old pro. After a couple more solos and some Dixieland-ish group blowing, Berne pulls another card out of his sleeve and cuts the bass and drums, leaving the three horns (Berne, Golia and trombonist John Rapson) to writhe and wriggle. Closing track "Showtime" also features a sly set change, but I won't spoil it—let's just say it brings the title into sharp focus.

7x is another good record, and another record with a lot of ideas shooting off in a lot of directions. As I make my way through Berne's catalog (again, no promises re: promptness), I'll be curious to see where along the line he started to streamline his aesthetic, to prune off some of the stray branches. I know that at least as early as 1986's Fulton Street Maul, he was making great, fully coherent records, so it shouldn't be long.

No comments: