Since he moved to New York City in the mid-'70s, alto and baritone saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Tim Berne has been an important member of that city's creative music community; he asserts a strong and singular musical personality throughout his diverse and frequently absorbing works. He has influenced other and often younger creative improvising musicians, and knew his way around the music business. The last attribute has been particularly useful to Berne at key moments in his career, as he established independent record labels to get his music released to the public. Whether recording for a major label like Columbia, his own independents Empire and Screwgun, or a creative imprint such as ECM, Tim Berne has charted a singular and uncompromising musical path.
Berne was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1954, and purchased his first alto saxophone while attending Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. A fan of R&B and Motown, he was not particularly interested in jazz until he heard saxophonist Julius Hemphill's album Dogon A.D. Inspired by Hemphill's ability to project R&B soulfulness in a creative jazz context, Berne traveled to New York City in 1974 and located the saxophonist. He took saxophone lessons from Hemphill and also became involved in managing the elder musician's rather infrequent concert appearances. A mentor-apprentice relationship evolved, providing Berne encouragement for his musical endeavors as well as lessons in how to operate independently. Hemphill, founder of the World Saxophone Quartet and a major figure in the '70s New York loft jazz scene, died in 1995, leaving a considerable imprint on creative music but arguably with his greatest promise unfulfilled. To this day, Berne cites Hemphill as a significant and continuing influence on his work.
In 1979, Berne founded Empire, his first record label, and released four albums over the next four years. These recordings featured a number of musicians who had -- or would soon have -- stellar reputations in creative jazz circles, including Paul Motian, John Carter, Olu Dara, Vinny Golia, Alex Cline, Nels Cline, and Ed Schuller. Berne's efforts attracted the interest of Italian record producer Giovanni Bonandrini, whose Soul Note label released the saxophonist's next two albums, The Ancestors in 1983 and Mutant Variations in 1984. Drummer Motian and bassist Schuller from the Empire recordings were featured on the Soul Note releases, which also introduced trumpeter Herb Robertson as a new member of the Berne coterie. Robertson first met Berne at a 1981 loft jam session and would figure prominently in many of the saxophonist's later and most successful recordings. Notably, Berne cites Mutant Variations as his first album in which compositions were written specifically for the musicians involved. Previously, he had written material without knowing exactly who would be available to record it.
With six albums as a leader to his credit, Berne landed a major-label deal with Columbia, which released Fulton Street Maul in 1987 and Sanctified Dreams in 1988. The former album included cellist Hank Roberts and then-ECM guitarist Bill Frisell, along with Berne and drummer Alex Cline. Sanctified Dreams featured a larger ensemble with Berne joined again by Roberts and Robertson, as well as bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Joey Baron. This quintet afforded Berne the opportunity for some of his most complex and focused music to date. With Sanctified Dreams' loosening and tightening rhythms, spiky melodic lines, and attention to textural detail, Berne charted a direction that he would continue to explore even more deeply on subsequent recordings.
Not a bastion of the avant-garde, Columbia issued only two recordings and Berne's relationship with the label was over. German producer Stefan Winter then signed Berne to his JMT label and from 1989 until 1995, the saxophonist was given free rein to pursue a number of challenging projects. These resulted in two recordings by the collaborative trio Miniature, which featured Berne, Roberts, and Baron; Fractured Fairy Tales, Berne's first JMT recording as a leader; and Pace Yourself and Nice View by Tim Berne's Caos Totale. The two Caos Totale recordings, released in 1991 and 1993, featured an extended ensemble of Berne, Robertson, Dresser, trombonist Steve Swell, drummer Bobby Previte, and French guitarist Marc Ducret. (Nice View also included British musician Django Bates on keyboards and E flat peck horn.) The Caos Totale recordings revealed a mature and self-assured Berne with an instantly identifiable saxophone style and a compositional approach moving toward extended-form pieces of extraordinary scope. Diminutive Mysteries (Mostly Hemphill), Berne's heartfelt tribute to his friend and mentor, was also released by JMT in 1993, only two years before the gravely ill Hemphill died of a heart condition. That Hemphill was pleased by this homage remains a source of great satisfaction to Berne.
Berne's career was about to move into a new phase marked by the formation of an important new band and a second new label. In 1991, Berne had recorded a session led by bassist Michael Formanek for Formanek's Extended Animation, released the following year by Enja. In 1992, the two musicians recorded again, this time in a collaborative trio with drummer Jeff Hirshfield from the Extended Animation ensemble. The result was Loose Cannon, released by Soul Note in 1993, a recording that revealed Berne and Formanek to be a particularly compatible reeds-and-bass team. Berne became interested in leading his own trio with Formanek as the bassist, and chose Jim Black, a recent arrival to New York City from Boston, as the drummer. Berne soon decided that a quartet would serve as a better outlet for his "composing jones" and following a recommendation from Black, added tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed to the group. (Speed, like Black, was originally from Seattle and studied in Boston before making the jump to New York.) Berne now had a new working quartet, which he named Bloodcount. Still under contract to JMT, the quartet headed to Paris in September 1994 and joined up with guitarist Ducret for four nights of concerts to be recorded live. In 1995, the results appeared on a trilogy of JMT CDs, Lowlife, Poisoned Minds, and Memory Select. On the CDs, the members of Bloodcount stretched out with individual and collective improvisations that are slowly drawn back into unison structures which retained Berne's skewed R&B sensibility. Extended-form compositions, now stretched to the 30- to 50-minute range, were filled with episodes of gradually escalating tension with sometimes intentionally muted, rather than explosive, resolution. The Paris concert trilogy of recordings received considerable acclaim, but the JMT label was soon to disappear, taking Berne's recordings out of circulation. JMT had a distribution deal with Polygram, which after purchasing the label decided to shut it down. Berne's entire back catalog of JMT recordings was deleted and much of the music he had written and performed during the early '90s was gone. "It's like being erased," he commented to The New York Times.
In characteristic fashion, Berne moved forward and established his second independent label, Screwgun, which became the major outlet for his work. With guerilla recording tactics, plain brown packaging on the label's initial releases, and wild and scribbly Steve Byram graphic art, the Screwgun CDs often presented Berne at his roughest and edgiest. Bloodcount Unwound, the label's inaugural release in 1996, is a three-CD energy blast recorded live by the core quartet (minus Ducret) at club dates in Berlin and Ann Arbor, Michigan. A slew of additional recordings followed during the remainder of the '90s, including Discretion and Saturation Point by Bloodcount and Visitation Rites and Please Advise by Paraphrase, Berne's improvising trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. Berne continued to appear on other labels during this period as well. I Think They Liked It Honey by the Big Satan trio of Berne, Ducret, and Rainey was released on Stefan Winter's Winter & Winter label in 1997; other CDs issued during the late '90s included Ornery People by the Berne and Formanek duo on Little Brother Records, Cause & Reflect by Berne and Hank Roberts on Level Green, and Melquiades by the Italian band Enten Eller (with Berne as guest alto saxophonist) on Splasc(h) Records.
As the new millennium began, Berne traveled to Denmark and Sweden to perform and record with the Copenhagen Art Ensemble, the results of which appeared on the Screwgun double-CD set Open, Coma (with full-color artwork replacing the label's earlier "plain brown wrapper" style) in 2001. And earlier, at the June 2000 Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in New York City, Berne premiered two new ensembles, both of which featured former Detroit-area keyboardist and Roscoe Mitchell collaborator Craig Taborn. Shell Game was released by the Hard Cell trio (Berne, Rainey, and Taborn) the following year, and 2002 and 2003 saw the release of Science Friction and The Sublime And by Berne's Science Friction quartet (Hard Cell plus guitarist Ducret). Meanwhile, Berne also found time to pursue his more compositional side on The Sevens, a New World label release from 2002 also featuring the ARTE Quartett saxophone ensemble and guitarists Ducret and David Torn, the latter also responsible for "sonic nurturing" and "sonic redistribution." The year 2004 saw Berne release Hard Cell Live on Screwgun, and Souls Saved Hear, a new studio recording from Big Satan on Thirsty Ear, also arrived. Recorded in Brooklyn and Ann Arbor, Hard Cell Live appeared later that year, followed by Feign, another Screwgun release, this time by an acoustic version of Hard Cell, in 2005, a year that also saw the Winter & Winter label re-release the three earlier JMT Bloodcount Paris Concert collections (Lowlife, Poisoned Minds, and Memory Select). A new recording from Paraphrase, Pre-Emptive Denial, also arrived on Screwgun in 2005.
As the decade continued, Berne also collaborated with various musicians who had been major contributors to his own endeavors, including David Torn's Prezens (essentially the Hard Cell trio under the leadership of Torn) and Drew Gress' 7 Black Butterflies. He also resurrected Bloodcount for selected club and concert appearances, and began performing and recording with the Buffalo Collision quartet -- consisting of Berne and cellist Hank Roberts along with Bad Plus members Ethan Iverson (piano) and David King (drums) -- whose Duck CD was released by Screwgun in 2008. Berne continued his collaborative work as the end of the 2000s neared, forming the BB&C trio with guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Jim Black; a 2009 live set by the group at New York City venue The Stone was released as The Veil by Cryptogramophone in 2011. The same year also saw the release of the Screwgun archival release Insomnia, a 1997 studio date featuring the Bloodcount quartet of Berne, Speed, Formanek, and Black along with frequent Berne (and original Bloodcount) collaborator Ducret on acoustic guitar as well as trumpeter Baikida Carroll, violinist Dominique Pifarély, and cellist Erik Friedlander. Also in 2011, the album Old and Inwise, by the duo of Berne and French bassist Bruno Chevillon (Ducret, Louis Sclavis), was released by Clean Feed.
As Berne involved himself in various, often largely improvisational endeavors during this time period, a number of his ongoing collaborators began releasing their own albums on the highly regarded Munich-based ECM label, including Torn's aforementioned Prezens in 2007 and Formanek’s The Rub and Spare Change in 2010 -- both of which included the saxophonist -- as well as Taborn’s 2011 solo piano outing Avenging Angel. It seemed only a matter of time before Berne would have his own ECM debut as a leader, and in fact, Snakeoil, the premier recording of a new Berne ensemble, arrived in February 2012. The bass-less Snakeoil quartet featured Berne on alto along with Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano, and Ches Smith on drums and percussion, three musicians described by the leader as satisfying his need "for strong personalities who are not afraid to express their musical opinions in the heat of battle." Produced by Manfred Eicher, Snakeoil found Berne balancing the freedom of his improvising groups with compositional approaches signaling new directions -- including a focus that eschewed album-length epic suites -- but also uniquely identifiable as his alone. This quartet issued Shadow Man, its follow-up for the label, in October of 2013. The band became a quintet for 2015's You've Been Watching Me, its third date for the label, with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira. ~ Dave Lynch