Thursday, June 2, 2011

New Jazz for You - Tim Berne/Jim Black/Nels Cline, or How to Listen to Free Jazz

Tim Berne, Jim Black, and Nels Cline are all behemoths of free improvisation. Well, Cline and Berne are at least, standing in 6'4" range. Jim Black is more of a mop-topped hobbit (see right).

But never mind that. Regardless of height, these three musicians have been true giants in their respective music scenes with instantly-recognizable voices. Multi-saxophonist Berne has been putting out edgy and varied records for almost thirty years, specializing in long form pieces where one is never sure what is composed and what is improvised. Jim Black's spiky-sounding drums propel New York-downtown music of all kinds, whether Berne, Balkan, or Punk-flavored. Cline is seemingly everywhere these days, spreading guitar mayhem with Wilco and his own projects.

Because the guys are so busy with project upon side-project, getting them together in one room requires nothing less than perfect syzygy. The three did manage to meet up the Stone in New York on July 30, 2009, spewing their improvisational magic over the 80 or so people that can uncomfortably fit into the former corner storefront. It seems a shame that so few would get to experience this gathering of musical titans (and a dwarf), but thankfully the Cryptogramophone label was present to catch it all on some stick of digital memory. The mystic brew was so potent that the label has kept it under wraps since that fateful night nearly two years ago.

But no longer. "The Veil" is lifted next Tuesday, June 7.

So how does it sound, you ask? Well, it sounds just like a Berne, Black or Cline fan would expect, which is just friggin' great. If you are a fan of any of these musicians, you should be anticipating this release like a Belieber on line for "Never Say Never." No need to review any more.

"But all I've heard of these guys is Nels in Wilco," you say. "What can I get out of this?"

I'll start by admitting that this album can be quite the head trip for the uninitiated. There are weird sounds, profound dissonances, and nary a repeating hook. But with a bit of direction, anyone new to free improvisation can make his or her way through "The Veil" and actually enjoy it.

The most important thing is to keep your mind on at all times. Music this abstract invites you to get creative with the sounds you hear. Luckily, the opening track "Railroaded" begins full throttle, giving your adrenaline levels a boost to keep you focused. Jim Black sets the tone with an unrelenting breakbeat while Cline and Berne layer on the noise. Cue in to what Cline is doing. What is that yodeling wah-wah thing? How does he change sounds so quick? Just trying to follow Cline's sound explorations can be a fun challenge.

Nels' infamously powerful effects pedal board
After zoning in on the details, take a step back and try listening to how the players respond to each other. Not locked into a strict song form, Black is able to put on the breaks at any moment, and somehow Berne and Cline respond as if it were all planned. After the group has exhausted a particular idea, someone throws in a new sound or new groove or a new parcel of melody. The others' ears perk up and suddenly the trio goes careening into a totally new place. Sometimes an old idea is brought back, like Black's machine gun rim clicks at the end of "Railroaded." It rounds out the form and signals to everyone that we're done here moving on. The destination? The audience sure as hell doesn't know.

Such close listening can cause a bit of a brain burnout, so after a while, it's kind of nice to chill out a bit and just revel in the sound. After "Railroaded" and the equally rollicking "Impairment Posse," the character shifts into an eerie netherworld. Cline's guitar swells and swallows the space around it, soon followed by creepy digital noises from Black's laptop and screechy multiphonics from Berne's saxophone. This section is called "Momento," perhaps the soundtrack to a creepy thriller by Christopher Nolan in bizarro world. The sound overtakes you. Images flash across your semiconscious mind. A shadowy man surrounded by white light. Doors that open into nothingness. A faint voice emanates behind you. It comes closer. You turn around and...

The trio at fever pitch
A pile of drums falls down the stairs. This racket awakens you from your dream and you find yourself hearing Cline and Black locked in hand to hand rhythmic combat. After 100 seconds of fierce fighting, the two call a draw and lock into a knotty metal hook. Berne drives the ensuing "Barbarella Syndrome," coaxing Black and Cline to new levels of intensity with his abrasive tones. The trio boils over into a rhythmic morass, yet the temperature continues to rise. Black then lets loose a positively headbanging tribal beat. The music threatens to overflow the speakers, yet you want it to keep going, so locked into that groove.

Then suddenly Cline and Black stop short, throwing Berne off a cliff. The saxophonist is alone, attempting to fly just that much further to reach terra firma in the next section. Does he make it? Does the epic saga of improvisation continue? Well wouldn't you like to know.

Ok, ok, ok. So I know some of that description sounds a little bit ridiculous. I'm not trying to say that Berne, Black, and Cline have a definite narrative in their music, but rather that an engaged listener can bring a lot of cool experiences to abstract music that make it all come alive. Perhaps the creepy sounds of "Momento" make you think of an alien abduction rather than a surreal thriller. Perhaps Black's slippery drumming makes you think of collages by Kurt Schwitters in how he takes short snippets of different grooves and rearranges them in a nonsensical order.

Either way, I invite you to check out this brilliant and visceral music and find your own way through it. For those of you who can't wait until next Tuesday, check out the video from last fall's Angel City Jazz Fest in LA.

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