April 29, 2001
The Shell Game
Thirsty Ear THI 57099.2
Tim Berne's first studio session in eight years may surprise a lot of people. For while the downtown New Yorker has always been one of the city's more vehement improvisers, this trio disc is the first he's organized where electronic keyboards define the shape of his four compositions.
Suddenly he's able to do so, he says, because the group showcases the multidimensional electric impulses of Craig Taborn. Taborn, who is a veteran of stints with the bands of James Carter and Roscoe Mitchell, knows enough about electronics' inner workings to be able to perform the dual role as soloist an accompanist — often at the same time. Third member is inventive drummer Tom Rainey, who has a long working relationship with both the saxophonist and bassist Mark Helias.
Taborn, Berne and Rainey have been working in this formation for the past year. The results here are so commendable, that they may almost make fusion respectable again.
Not that this CD is another entrant in the "see-how-fast-I-play" sweepstakes to which contemporary fusion has degenerated. Instead, like some Miles Davis, Henry Threadgill and Ornette Coleman projects, it's a return to the concept of using electric instruments to provide different sounds, not an attempt to make a dent in Billboard's contemporary jazz charts with an ever-constant beat.
THE SHELL GANE is also not that different from Berne work with many of his other bands. If the epitome of modern European improv is the acceptance of space and silences, then Berne's Lower East Side nihilism has always involved cramming as many notes, tones, thoughts and ideas into his compositions as possible. In fact, there are times that the band's work is reminiscent of comedian Jackie Mason's comments about rock bands: "They work like horses, they sweat, they jump, they fly, they scream. Are they busy."
Showcase of the disc is "Thin Ice", which at almost 30 minutes is the length of many LPs. Beginning very much like a Sun Ra cosmic odyssey with outer space synthesizer chords and organ runs in the background, it's molted by the occasional squawk from Berne and thump from Rainey. Very soon it developed into a full-fledged aural assault that waxes and wanes as the minutes evaporate. Employing an airy, bluesy tone reminiscent of that of his mentor Julius Hemphill, the saxophonist tosses the motif back to Taborn's 1970s-style bubbling electric piano after he shapes it himself. Shortly afterwards, using rims, snares and finally the bass drum, Rainey knocks out a solo, which in other circumstances might bring out the lit matches. Meantime, the joys of electricity allow Taborn to construct what appears to be an electric bass counterpoint to all this. Finally Berne comes alive with an uninterrupted melody, Rainey craftily shifts tempos, and Taborn produces a variety of new tones as the three jump back and forth from head banging to smooth rhythms. Throughout the CD, the reference point seems to be Davis' Bitches Brew: Even the tune entitled "Heavy Metal" likely won't attract fans of Mettalica or Black Sabbath. That is, unless those hard rockers are prepared for the thump and bump of what could be a sabotaged garage band anthem. On it, Taborn's creates MIR satellite-like exploration of every key in his electronic tool kit, while a discordant alto saxophone pitch insists on filling every millimetre of air with high flying multiphonics.
These impulses to push electricity to its limits every time out are the desires that the three will have to mute. That's why the CD doesn't work at all levels. Judging from the track record of each man, though, and how they approach the electric challenge, they do prove that serious music can be made in this format.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1 Hard Cell 2. Twisted/Straight Jacket 3. Heavy Metal 4. Thin Ice
Personnel: Tim Berne (alto saxophone); Craig Taborn (keyboard and electronics); Tom Rainey (drums)