Tim Berne Celebrates the Fantastic Mrs. 10

Berne

THE FANTASTIC MRS. 10 / BERNE: The Fantastic Mrs. 10. Surface Noise. Rolo. Dear Friend. The Amazing Mr. 7. Third Option. Rose Colored Assive / Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: Berne, a-sax; Oscar Noriega, bs-cl/b-flat cl; Marc Ducret, gtr; Matt Mitchell, pno/tack pno/ modular synths; Ches Smith, dm/vib/glock/Haitian tanbou/gongs / Intakt CD 340

Alto saxist Tim Berne, a veteran who has made 41 albums as a leader (and now, six with Snakeoil), presents here music that one writer has described as “gnarled fantasias.” How complex is this music? The drummer on this session, Ches Smith, is quoted in the liner notes as saying, “Growing up in California, I remember hearing one of Tim’s discs with Craig and Tom, and thinking, ‘God, I don’t know what’s going on in this music, but I know I could never do this.’” But here he is, doing it and contributing to Byrne’s happy melee.

And it is indeed very, very complex music, using a series of small cells to propel the band in the opening track. We never do learn in the booklet who The Fantastic Mrs. 10 is, but the music suggests a post-modern, somewhat psychotic lady who has a lot of head-banging going on inside her noggin. With its intertwining lines and a basic rhythm that tends towards 4 but is always in flux, the music bears a certain resemblance to that of Henry Threadgill. As an improviser, however, Berne isn’t nearly as complicated or as far-out as Ivo Perelman. He bears a closer resemblance to late-period Coltrane. At around the 6:14 mark, pianist Mitchell plays a series of slow single notes as a sort of ground bass to Berne’s complex musical web of sound, which he later expands to a fast-moving atonal explosion of his own. Perhaps this is meant to represent Mrs. 10’s nervous breakdown. I was less pleased, of course, by the screaming rock-styled guitar playing of Marc Ducret, which sticks out like a sore thumb.

Surface Noise, by contrast, begins very quietly with a few sprinkled notes from Mitchell, which he expands a bit and gradually accelerates in tempo before the leader enters with his intrepid alto sax. The music continues to accelerate as it becomes increasingly busier before the tempo is suspended completely while Noriega noodles around on bass clarinet while the leader does some light screaming in the background. Mitchell then shifts to modular synthesizers for some really wacky moments, with Noriega occasionally peeking in. The music then becomes a labyrinth of sound, although oddly Berne’s alto sax plays a few really lyrical licks before turning to a string of wild sixteenth notes played in a serrated fashion.

One could say much the same about the remaining music on this disc. Sometimes, when I review an album like this, I wonder how many of the fans of this music really understand intellectually what is going on here, or if they just absorb the vibes emotionally without making any judgment or analysis. The reason I say this is not to demean them but to try to grasp whether or not untrained musical minds can really appreciate the complexities of this music. Rolo, the third track on this CD, is, to my ears, the most structured piece on the album, yet it, too, engages in moments where I think to myself that much of the target audience merely enjoys what they are hearing without analysis. The way Berne dissects his already complex theme and develops it using several different devices including inversion and playing his variants with different techniques (legato in one chorus, short staccato jabs in the next) adds to the value of the piece as a composition while still retaining its improvisatory spirit. Eventually the music devolves into sustained screams by Noriega’s clarinet while Berne plays lyrical figures around him and the rhythm section roils in the background.

By contrast with virtually every other piece in this set, Dear Friend really is a lyrical piece with almost a Mingus sort of vibe about it except for the occasional scratchy sound of electronics here and there, while The Amazing Mr. 7 (perhaps Mrs. 10’s husband?) begins with the soft but jarring sound of percussion being played like a group of empty tin cans, later with bass and synthesizer interjections. Once again, however, the jarring sound of rock-styled guitar mucks things up for a while. At around the 5:32 mark there’s a remarkable passage where piano and alto sax play complex figures against each other, each prodding the other to ever-more-extreme variations. Third Option opens with a polyphonic duet between the alto sax and bass clarinet which becomes ever busier once the piano and drums enter. Oddly, by the 4:56 mark, the rhythm has straightened out and almost sounds like a swing piece but for the complex, atonal top lines. Sadly, we are again subjected to whiny rock guitar.

In toto, however, this is a very interesting album that certainly bears listening to.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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