It was gnarled momentum that initially made me fall for Tim Berne’s music. Some of the cresting swells of early albums like 7X and Mutant Variations helped sell a compositional style that fully values kinetic crescendos. Because he’s a texture fiend, the saxophonist has historically left plenty of room for visceral sounds that up the ante as well. From Fractured Fairy Tales to Bloodcount, his bands have been expert at throwing punches while galloping by.
So I’m wondering why I’m so smitten with the utter grace of Berne’s latest outfit, Los Totopos. He hasn’t made any stylistic switch-ups for his first ECM disc, but the level of refinement that this new music boasts is unmistakable. Surrounded by Oscar Noriega’s clarinets, Ches Smith’s drums, and Matt Mitchell’s piano, the leader’s alto patterns have moved from tumbling to swooping. That momentum mentioned above is still there – parts of Snakeoil, like the drive towards oblivion at the end of “Scanners,” come on like a locomotive – but the group’s unity bevels the turbulence. I got to see the band during several formative gigs, and they were tight. But this disc captures an eloquence that wasn’t there prior.
One of the program’s strong points is the ensemble’s ability to be diffuse yet determined. From the opening speculation by Mitchell (whose ability to render frenzied passages with a gentle touch is crucial to this refinement thing I’m talking about) to the dreamy investigations the band renders on “Not Sure,” Los Totopos concoct the kind of formal informality that the Art Ensemble claimed as their own early on. The start of “Spare Parts” offers jitters inside a feathery reflection. The tune’s mid-section finds everything on constant simmer, waxing supple and prickly at the same time.
Noriega’s pulpy tone is a rich foil for Berne’s signature tartness. Smith’s deep palette of pummel options dodges cliché at every turn. Mitchell, who studied the bandleader’s music as a student, deploys the kind of whimsy that’s imbued with gravitas. Along with Manfred Eicher’s meticulous production, these singular skills help Berne reshape his sound. Together, they’ve found a way of presenting architectural idiosyncrasies as enchanting wrinkles.
TIM BERNE SEVEN PLAYS AT SHAPESHIFTER LAB TONIGHT
From Baby Dodd’s tumbling his way through “Spooky Drums” to Han Bennink getting giddy on Tempo Comodo, I’ve long been intrigued by the choices a percussionist makes when he or she sets up shop alone. Over the course of three discs Ches Smith has come up with some intriguing turns. Away from noted collaborators such as Marc Ribot and Tim Berne, and under the moniker Cong For Brums, he’s melded his skills at the trap set with his yen for electronics and other percussion instruments. The resultant array of soundscapes are as logical and gorgeous as they are abstract and hermetic. The three on this latest outing are titled “Death Chart,” “Birth Chart,” and “Conclusion: That’s Life.” Using lessons from such mentors as Pauline Oliveros and Alvin Currin picked up during his studies at Mills College, the NYC drummer builds a narrative arc that includes moments of Morse Code mixed with flourishes of doom metal. He calls ‘em etudes, but you can call ‘em the most well-plotted cris de coeur ever – even the bleeps nicked from Pac Man.
Smith, a lanky dude who plays a somewhat tiny drum set featuring a mile-high crash cymbal, recorded Psycho Predictions live, and its improvised design has a deliberate feel. That’s a plus. It may seem like a parade of textured thwacks and buzzes, but each segue does a good job of leading the music away from randomness. “I’m trying to find a way to connect the three instruments compositionally,” he says of the drums, vibes, and electronics. “I had this whole thing mapped out harmonically, but it came together differently than what I had imagined when I set out.” There are giddy passages with a Raymond Scott feel, luminous passages with an Cluster feel, and there’s a moment or two of good old Baby Dodds as well. Smith may do strong work with such associates as Mary Halvorson and Xiu Xiu, but he has no problem creating a load of eloquence on his own.
They may seem thorny, but the intersecting lines Mary Halvorson uses to build her pieces are as sound as they are elaborate – this former student of Anthony Braxton and Joe Morris has a knack for innovative architecture, and each tune is a nest of ideas. On the new Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12) the guitarist augments those lines with horns played by Jon Irabagon and Jonathan Finlayson, and comes away with an alluring program that doesn’t mind scratching its way toward eloquence. Best of all, its oddity sounds natural. That’s pretty much the definition of unique, no? Check the shards flying around “Mile High Like” to discover how freedom can be harnessed without being haltered. She and the quintet (bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith are the heartbeat) are playing at Barbes on Thursday night with the brass ‘n’ reeds. Who’s up for a set of provocative puzzles? Here’s the link to a Roulette hit by the fivesome.
My DownBeat review