Wednesday, January 05, 2011

On record: Tim Berne's "The Five Year Plan"

Lately, in my recreational listening time, I've been spinning little else but Tim Berne—a not-at-all unusual scenario. Though I'm loath to make any promises re: future DFSBP content ("How do you make God laugh? … Make a plan"—Kicking and Screaming), I thought it might be fun to systematize this obsession, working my way through the Berne discography in chronological fashion and recording some reflections. So, again, no promises re: where this project will lead, but since I spent good time today with Berne's debut release, The Five Year Plan—available as a download via Screwgun, either alone or as part of The Empire Box—I'll share some impressions.

Tim Berne's mature records—with Hardcell, Big Satan or Bloodcount, say—bear his unmistakable fingerprints: proggy vamp-labyrinths, liberal use of gradual coalescence (a concept I discussed in depth in this Bloodcount write-up), and lengthy passages of gritty, deep-listening improv. You won't find any of that on The Five Year Plan. Checking out this album (recorded in April of 1979) in light of Berne's later work, you hear an artist who has yet to really locate his aesthetic North Star.

But that's not to say there's not a strong vision at work here. Overall, I was pretty damn impressed with how methodical and well-paced this record is, not to mention how distinctive it is. On the latter tip, one of the first things you notice about The Five Year Plan is that two of its four tracks are dedications (one to Julius Hemphill and the other to Abdul Wadud, two names that any Berne-head will know well; refresh via Do the Math if necessary). Sometimes that can be a bad sign, but not here: These may be tributes, but they're pointedly not imitations. Berne is clearly going his own way here.

It's obvious that he wants to frame himself not so much as a composer—the thematic material here is brief and not terribly memorable—but as a conceptualist. Each piece on the record has a clear reason for existing. This is an experimental-minded record, but it is absolutely not a Free Jazz record. These are tightly controlled sound spaces, even the ones with a lot of breathing room.

On the latter tip, the final piece, "N.Y.C. Rites," might be The Five Year Plan's most memorable track. It's very long and very quiet, a kind of gently murmuring horn chorus that works its way up to some jagged peaks. Percussionist Alex Cline (whose sonic palette, filled with chimes, boomy toms and what sounds like scrap metal, really defines the album as a whole) and bassist Roberto Miranda flutter and scrape in the background as Berne, clarinet great John Carter and flutist Vinny Golia play drawn-out, chamber-ish lines, setting up a ritual vibe that's right in line with the title of the piece. You can tell here that Berne knows his AACM and BAG histories, that he's internalized those collectives' throw-out-the-rulebook-and-let-SOUND-be-your-guide imperatives. The sidemen know just what to do in this setting: Everyone's playing quietly and spaciously, and everyone's listening. Berne sounds terrific (piercing and soulful) here, but he doesn't stand out as a soloist. The latter honor goes to Carter, who gravitates to this meditative vibe like a moth to a flame and turns in a fantastic solo, alternately lyrical and bracingly harsh. This is a deep piece of music and a true ensemble performance—Berne lets his collaborators play but he's drawn them a clear roadmap.

Each of the other three tracks has its own story to tell, and though they're not quite as memorable as "N.Y.C. Rites," none are duds. Opener "The Glasco Cowboy" (the Hemphill dedication) is a sax-trio suite (featuring just Berne, Miranda and Cline) and another piece that maintains that tricky balance of openness and control. It starts with a marchlike vamp in 5/4, which Berne uses as a launchpad for a bit of jaggedly funky improv. Within 1.5 minutes, we're into an upbeat swing section, the closest thing to "jazz" on this entire album. But just when you think you have the tune pegged, it changes direction again, veering into an "N.Y.C. Rites"–like meditative space. Miranda (who first blew my mind on John Carter's classic Dauwhe) tears it up in subtle fashion here, mingling poetically with Berne's hushed lines. The trio hits some post-Ayler climaxes, but never surrenders to Free Jazz. Eventually Miranda and Cline drop out and Berne plays a two-minute unaccompanied coda—clearly indebted to the likes of Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell (as well as Hemphill himself, no doubt) but gripping nonetheless—a pretty damn daring move considering that this is the very first piece on his very first album.

The Wadud dedication, called simply "A.K. Wadud," is another suite, and like "The Glasco Cowboy," it features a number of surprising set changes. Cline gets the intro, setting the mood with sparse chimes, and eventually switching over to drums and launching into a chugging, choo-choo-train rhythm—very tribal and not at all jazzy. The horns (Berne, Carter, Golia and trombonist Glenn Ferris) enter with a long theme: stern and declamatory. Then Cline begins to splatterpaint the basic rhythm and Miranda takes a deep, speechlike arco solo. A quick left turn follows: a shift into an upbeat, Latin-ish rhythm over which Golia (playing baritone here) and Ferris wail. Even amid this high-energy vibe, Berne is thinking organizationally: He unleashes only these two horns, not himself and Carter. After two minutes, the piece ramps down to ritualistic silence, and here is where Berne and Carter have their say, darting atop Cline's free-time coloration. Things heat up to a boil, but *again* Berne pulls the rug out: After another two minutes, we're back to Cline alone, playing sparse chimes and thuds before launching back into the initial choo-choo-train rhythm, leading into a quick restatement of the theme.

The brilliantly titled "Computerized Taps for 12 Different Steps" is brief and frantic, built around a zippy four-note vamp for flute and bass. The head is a marvel of post-AACM controlled chaos—check out Cline's scrap-metal madness here—though the improv section gets a little free-for-all-ish for my tastes. But that's really only a reflection of how expertly controlled the rest of the record is; this is no directionless blow-out, just the closest thing to one on what is overall a very calculated album.

I obviously can't put myself in the headspace of a first-time Berne listener, but I can't imagine having checked out The Five Year Plan upon its release and not thought, "Huh… this guy has some really cool ideas." In fact, I thought the very same thing today, even if I had some trouble linking this Tim Berne with the one I know and love. Nothing wrong with that sort of challenge though. I look forward to discovering how the dots connect.

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