open, coma
Screwgun Screwu 012

Finally, after more than 20 years of recording, card-carrying New York downtowner Tim Berne is able to show off his versatility by writing for and playing with uncommon aggregations.

Not that the alto saxophonist hasn’t created impressive — some very impressive — work using the standard horns-and-rhythm-section of traditional jazz trios, quartets and sextets. Yet in apparently less doctrinaire European countries, unusual combinations can be rehearsed and recorded. Recently a CD featuring notated compositions written for his alto and a Swiss classical saxophone quartet was released. Now there’s this fine two-CD set, recorded in 2000. It features Berne plus two of his close associates, American trumpeter Herb Robertson and French guitarist Marc Ducret, performing his music along with a conductor and the 10-member Copenhagen Art Ensemble (CAE).

Given the color field available from the additional brass, reeds and rhythm of this established group, the composer/improviser is able to express his ideas in greater depth and definitely at greater length. There are only four pieces spread over the two CDs, clocking in at more than 28, 46, 33 and just under 42 minutes each.

Just as importantly, unlike earlier efforts by some other jazzers, these tunes aren’t designed to be showcases for the foreign soloists with the complacent big band used for heft and background. Berne, who arranged three out of four pieces as well — conductor Ture Larsen, a veteran of The Danish Radio Big Band and Thad Jones’ Eclipse did the other — takes full advantage of the band members’ skills. Not only do many of the Danes get solo space, but with the creations fully orchestral, they also benefit from the interactions among musicians who have been playing in this formation since 1995.

As can be expected, besides the music, the usual Berne/Screwgun quirks are on display as well. A sticker on the package reads: “As herd (sic) on the Opie Book Club)”, and notes that the two discs — labeled “9” and “117” instead of “1” and “2” — supposedly have their labels reversed.

Working on that supposition, the massive “eye contact” is the piece closest to traditional big band jazz, with Robertson and Ducret both in the spotlight. Almost immediately CAE proves its worth by framing the trumpeter’s Harmon-muted lines, but never getting so loud as to drown him out. Following a blaring free-for-all tenor saxophone section, the quiet soprano saxophone of Lotte Anker, echoed by other horns, constructs a tranquil countermotif that resembles an orchestral concerto. So hushed that bassist Nils Davisen stinging lines can be heard, the swinging theme is then reprised, making room for an extended, wailing guitar solo from Ducret. Able to meld a rock-like rhythmic thrust with jazz sensibility, the guitarist has worked with Berne since 1991 as well as countrymen like clarinetist Louis Sclavis and drummer Daniel Humair. Yet while his attack may be strictly POMO, the riffing orchestral lines behind him are constructed not unlike how West Coast bandleader Gerald Wilson would have arranged a Joe Pass showcase for his big band. Eventually the piece is resolved with some rubato alto saxophone lines, speedy guitar licks, trumpet fanfares and press rolls from drummer Anders Mogensen.

An associate professor of music when he’s not touring, Mogensen, is a traditionalist, but one whose skills on a tune like the purported title track show that he can almost effortlessly and frequently vary the rhythm without calling attention to himself. Built on a floating Gil Evans-style orchestration, much of the contrast comes from Adolphe Sax’s inventions growling and honking while clarinetist Peter Fuglsang’s coloratura tone produces slurs even more legit-sounding than Benny Goodman’s after he changed his embouchure late in life. A uniform walking bass line, rock-inflected drumming that turns the beat around then rights it shortly afterwards vie with Fender Rhodes spikes that cut through the massed horns like a serrated knife slicing warm bread. Swelling horns, seemingly directed by Berne as lead altoist, resolve the theme before the coda.

On the other disc, “the legend of p-1” suggests what could have happened had Count Basie’s horn section met up with a player piano. Soon, call-and-response exhibitions are succeeded by a brassy half-valve excursion from Robertson accompanied by just bass and drums. Electrified guitar runs on top of a low-key, swaying, stop-time bluesy background ushers in some braying from the trumpeters as the tempo doubles and Mogensen exhibits his only heavy-handedness — and leaden foot — of the date. Berne’s alto saxophone explodes from the centre of all this, climbing into ever higher ranges and herding the other horns into a coda of rough, craggy unison smears.

Arranged by Larsen in a similar manner the almost 42-minutes long “impacted wisdom” cements Berne’s individual directions — that include piano arpeggios, saxophone tongue slaps and smeary, soaring trumpet lines — into a unified whole. When the composer surmounts this backing with some creamy alto lines sprayed like whipped cream on top of a cake, the internal structure is revealed with drum rolls, cymbal accents and assisting bass lines. Slip-sliding into other keys, the sax soloist uses squeaks and split tones to produce overtones that soar to higher pitches and fall to the instrument’s lowest register. Meanwhile the theme is gradually being reintroduced, first by clicking piano keys, then muted trumpet then jangling guitar. Soon with the horns hocketing back-and-forth, Robertson, who has had experience in a similar role with Bobby Previte’s Miles Davis tribute band, breathes out a quasi-Bitches Brew solo with undulating Fender Rhodes chords behind him.

As the groove takes hold the band morphs from a 1950s-style studio creation to resembling one of those horn-heavy jazz-rock aggregations like 10 Wheel Drive. Robertson spits out some trumpet lines while Berne double-times and smears. Eventually the vamp becomes as all pervasive as the riff at the beginning of Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland”.

As a composer and improviser, Berne has never settled for something as simplistic as that Weather Report groove piece. Aided and abetted by the CAE on the other hand, these discs provide a proper showcase for many of his advanced ideas. Hopefully this sort of large-scale performance can be repeated soon.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 117: 1. open, coma 2. eye contact Disc 9: 1. the legend of p-1 2. impacted wisdom

Personnel: Herb Robertson, Lars Vissing (trumpet); Kasper Tranberg (cornet); Mads Hyhne (trombone); Klaus Löhrer (bass trombone, tuba); Tim Berne (alto saxophone); Lotte Anker (tenor and soprano saxophones); Thomas Agergaard (tenor saxophone and flute); Peter Fuglsang (clarinet, bass clarinet); Thomas Clausen (piano, Fender Rhodes); Marc Ducret (guitar); Nils Davisen (bass); Anders Mogensen (drums); Ture Larsen