The mighty Tim Berne teams up with guitarists David Torn and Marc Ducret plus a...
Dan Hill 2002
It's tempting, if you were of a fantastical persuasion, to imagine Tim Berne and John Zorn as giants bestride lower Manhattan, both saxophone colossi, both frequent navigators into uncharted and turbulent musical waters.
It's tempting, but silly of course, as the real world at large is blissfully unaware of such figures, barely giving them two (game-called) hoots. And yet if the arc of history does curve towards justice (apologies for the hyperbole), Tim Berne will be seen as a major figure in turn of the century music, exploring the outer fringes of jazz and with The Sevens, heading towards modern composition, unafraid to blaze a trail through the barriers between both.
The central pieces here, "Repulsion" and "Quicksand", are both lengthy, complex, and mature works, performed brilliantly by the ARTE saxophone Quartett. "Repulsion" was composed entirely at the piano, yet it's recognisably a Berne composition - four melodies, or one melody in four voices, weaving between dialogue or raucous chorus. But the classical rendering brings out something of a lineage.
It sounds like New York - like the city's clamorous chaotic babble, with sudden moments of peace, ever-changing and ever-inspiring - placing Berne's work at the end of a shared timeline involving various be-bop visionaries through to Ives, Copland, Feldman, Reich, and more recently Zorn.
On the lengthier "Quicksand", the quartet are joined by Berne and frequent collaborator, guitarist Marc Ducret, for 22 minutes of brilliant interplay between composition (represented by the quartet) and improvisation (Berne and Ducret). It's a bewitching piece, with Ducret phenomenal on acoustic and Berne typically playing his heart out, alto darting around the gaps provided by his score. Elsewhere are two short pieces performed beautifully by Ducret (on acoustic again), and two pieces by another extraordinary guitarist, David Torn.
The first, "Reversion", is a 'remix' of "Repulsion", though that term barely does credit to Torn's collage-like reconstitution. "Tonguefarmer" is a beat-driven reworking by Torn of improvisations by Ducret of a composition by Berne. That this chinese whispers approach works, and is still recognisably Berne's is, in Torn's words "testament to the fluidity of Tim's writing to begin with". Another regular collaborator is designer Stephen Byram, whose reliably peerless artwork here is sadly trapped in the standard CD jewelbox - check his other work with Berne for Screwgun for evidence of more harmonious sound and vision.
An excellent essay by Nate Chinen unfurls from Byram's design, smartly highlighting Berne's mentor Julius Hemphill and providing more insight into the compositional process. The Sevens is brave, brilliant, challenging music, providing fresh evidence, if it were needed, of why pursuing those outer reaches of jazz and modern composition is still relevant.