Interview with Tim Berne (part 2)
Tim let me post a few excerpts to illustrate the text. Go over to Screwgun and check it all out further.
The first track was “Roberto Miguel” from Songs and Rituals in Real Time with Mack Goldsbury, Ed Schuller, and Paul Motian (1981, Empire)
TB: About those first Empire records, this is really important: Alex and Nels Cline and those guys supported me when I was a serious novice. And I couldn’t have done all this without those guys. I mean the Cline brothers especially. And the fact that somebody like John Carter played on one of my first records...even though I wasn’t really on their level, that got me to the point where eventually I got the confidence to have a band in New York. I realized I couldn’t keep going back and forth to L.A. That’s important.
I met Paul Motian when he was doing a gig with the bass player Saheb Sarbib. And I just went up to him and I asked him. And to this day I have no idea how I got the nerve. But he sort of said “Yeah, man, send me something,” or whatever. I may have given him a record or sent him a tape. I called him up a couple of weeks later and asked him if he listened to it, and he said “No.” But then he said, “Yeah, whatever, I’ll do the gig.” And that was this gig that turned into this record. It was live at this place Inroads. We rehearsed a lot, we played two sets, recorded it, and that’s Songs and Rituals in Real Time: The first time we ever played together. I remember Bill DeArango, the guitar player, was sitting in the front row. It was a kind of special gig. I mean it was really pretty cool.
And Paul was great. I don’t know why I didn’t know to be more frightened. I think I got more terrified when we did a tour, because then I was like “Holy shit, I’m on the road with Paul Motian.” There are two Soul Note records with Paul too, and he plays just great on them.
EI: One of the things that’s interesting about this record is how you can hear the thread of Keith Jarrett’s quartet with Paul. Some of the things that Paul plays on this record are not unrelated to what he would have played with Keith.
TB: Yeah. That’s what Paul sounds like to me, like “skipping funk” or “Armenian funk” or something. I heard him play with Jarrett. That was the shit. That was the stuff that really blew my mind.
EI: Despite Keith Jarrett’s fame and the fame of everybody in that band, that quartet is a little unrecognized in jazz history.
TB: You think so?
EI: I do actually. At least, what is unrecognized is how strong an impact it had on certain people...
TB: ...A lot of people. That was a real musician’s band. It liberated… it was sort of like tonal free jazz in a way.
I was able to do all this stuff because of guys like Braxton, Roscoe, Ornette, Cecil. Anybody who basically stopped playing song forms laid it out: you can do whatever you want. You don’t have to necessarily play straight-ahead jazz to be a “jazz musician.” I wasn’t really sticking my neck out; it’d already been done. I had my moments of noisy shit but basically, I was into really melodic, rhythmic music. And even the Art Ensemble and that kind of stuff, there was still this strong melodic base for me.
And then the stuff like Julius and Jarrett, there was just that rhythmic thing that I was really into. It was like soul music and stuff, it really kind of brought all those elements. And it wasn’t swing, really, to me. Even though I loved Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins and those guys, that wasn’t my language, it isn’t now, it may never be. But grooves are something that I like. Both Julius and the Jarrett quartet had their foot in both worlds. I saw the Jarrett quartet three nights in a row at the Vanguard. I think the last night, Sunday night, they recorded Fort Yawuh. And I remember thinking to myself, “Oh man, those other nights were so much better.” And so I never even got the record.
EI: You never got Fort Yawuh even though you were there?
TB: Basically, I used to buy records only if I hadn’t heard them before. So it was like “I was at the concert, I don’t need the record.” But I remember thinking, “Oh man, this is a little tired,” during the third night. The other shit was on fire. But then when I heard it, many, many years later, it didn’t come off that way, obviously. But that’s kind of like what I go through now. You go on the road, you think “that gig was only ok.” Like Unwound, that Bloodcount thing, I remember thinking that was a shitty gig. Then I didn’t listen to it for six months, and when I did I was like “Whoa.”
EI: What about the other musicians on Songs and Rituals in Real Time? I remember owning a Mack Goldsbury record a long time ago called Anthropology with John Scofield, Billy Hart and Ed Schuller.
TB: Goldsbury lives in Berlin now, but he’s from Fort Worth, Texas – like Julius, Dewey and Ornette.
You have to remember I was doing five gigs a year. And for every gig I did, I rented the space. I never got booked. And, uh, to me, Mack Goldsbury was like “Holy shit!” you know? Anybody who was a professional musician, I was awed by. With Mack, it was just like, “Oh I know this guy, I’ll call him.” And I thought: saxophone player, the blend would be good, it would be easier for me to write.
EI: What about Ed Schuller? How’d you know him?
TB: Because I met Herb Robertson in ’81 or ’80, and we jammed somewhere and Ed was playing.
EI: The saxophones improvise simultaneously on “Roberto Miguel,” sometimes playing bits of the tune. It’s sort of like this G minor bluesy thing, and Schuller is playing pretty much in the key of G minor too. Not unrelated to the way Charlie Haden would play with Keith, actually.
TB: It wasn’t by design. I never said, “Hey, let’s play in G.” If there’s anything I’m good at, it’s putting people together and creating a specific chemistry. You know, my instincts are good. I try to create a situation where I don’t have to say anything to get an interesting outcome. Not to say a specific outcome, but just an interesting outcome. So I didn’t say “Ed, play in G,” but I also know that Ed’s gonna play something sympathetic to the composition.
This has some Jarrett shit, I think. Just now I noticed that.
EI: You guys are quoting the tune quite a bit. Right here, both the bassist and the tenor player are quoting the tune directly. That just happened?
TB: For quite a while I kind of was sort of married to that melodic, based-on-the-tune improv. This one’s a little too literal!
I think it’s changed a bit over the years, because I’m able to do it a little more abstractly now. But that’s fundamentally been my approach. If you’re gonna write some music, I want it to be relevant as something that promotes improvisation or something that provokes improvisation. Otherwise it’s kind of gratuitous. I have to come up with stuff that’s, um, provocative enough, or interesting enough, or rich enough with ideas that it makes you want to improvise. And there’s a reason for it. Otherwise, it isn’t important. You can do it better improvising, you know? I was probably more arrangement-oriented before, but now I kind of just let stuff go. Just get the people. I have more confidence, and also I’m less precious as a composer. I know I can do it. I don’t have to prove anything to myself. So I’m kind of more interested in surprising myself with what I’m doing. Which means giving everybody a lot more rope.
EI: What do you feel overall about listening to this record?
TB: I just don’t think I’m on the level with the other guys. I’d been playing the saxophone seriously for 7 years. Which doesn’t mean anything....you can learn a lot in 7 years. But I think fundamentally my ideas had always been there in terms of how to present something. It was just a question of filling in the blanks and getting better. Playing more! God, at that time, I bet I didn’t do ten gigs a year. I had a job, and once in a while I’d rent space and do a gig.
EI: That’s very inspiring. I just loved your records when I was younger and you were just one of the guys on my shelf that I really admired. So I didn’t draw any of these conclusions then, but since I’ve gotten a little older I’ve realized you’re a model of someone who’s just a natural artist and carves out space. I’ve listened carefully to Songs and Rituals in Real Time in the last couple of weeks, and now I hear that it’s green in some ways. Sure, it’s fucking green. But also it has the juice. Which is why I dug it then and why I still dig it.
And that head there, that little G minor head, there’s something in that sound which is already the Tim Berne sound. No one else made that music. It’s that Tim Berne shit. And that’s really what it’s all about.
TB: I was always committed to writing. I did it all the time. So even though I didn’t necessarily know what I was doing, I was doing it often enough. It’s all about having an idea, then it’s just a question of having the patience to execute it: to write it down or however you compose. And if you’re unsatisfied with what you’re writing, it just means you’re not finished. And I’m really persistent. You have take it as seriously as practicing. It’s just a muscle that has to be used. I was lucky, I was around Julius, and he did it like it was breathing. So I just figured, “Oh great, everybody does that.”
The second track was “Hong Kong Sad Song/More Coffee” from Fractured Fairy Tales with Herb Robertson, Mark Feldman, Hank Roberts, Mark Dresser, and Joey Baron (1989, JMT)
EI: Fulton Street Maul, Sanctified Dreams, Fractured Fairy Tales, the Miniature records: they have this complicated written music and a lot of free improvisation. But there’s also something connected to rock energy. And I think it really started a lot of music that didn’t exist before.
TB: Ooh, I dunno. I can’t speak for that, cause all those ideas… I’m sure I got them from somewhere. If you listen to enough James Brown or whoever, even if you’re the most unfunky person in the world, it’s gonna seep in. And if you listen to Julius and Threadgill and these guys, they had all these crazy grooves.
I met Bill Frisell in France when he was on tour with Paul Motian. We did a couple of duo tours and we did a duo record called Theoretically. My friend Jon Rosenberg called and said he had free studio time, so that’s when Bill and I made that record. We just started pulling out tunes, he had some stuff, I had some stuff. And it was really fun, it was one of the most fun recordings. No pressure. It kind of predates Fulton Street Maul’s ideas. It’s when I first started going that way, the electric stuff. That kind of orchestrated, electric sound.
EI: There’s something electric and rocking out a little bit on all the records with Joey Baron. Even Hank Roberts is like that in a certain way.
TB: Using the cello is a way to get an orchestral sound and then sort of disguise the bass idea and dismantling normal rhythm section things. I kind of like disguising it, having the flexibility. I think it creates the opportunity to kind of transcend styles easier. I never thought “This is going to be rock, this is going to be jazz.” I just thought in terms of the sound, the personality. I know taking away the bass opens up things for drummers sonically. When you take that away it’s powerful. The dynamic range gets really big.
EI: Alto and trumpet, of course, is a special combination in the music. And Tim Berne with Herb Robertson is one of the classics!
TB: A lot of those decisions were based on the people, not so much like “Oh, I gotta find a trumpet player.” It might not have been my first choice instrument-wise, but you just find these people that you can play with. It’s so rare, where it’s just this magic thing.
A lot of people probably compared it to Ornette and Don, but that was the last thing on my mind. It was just someone I can actually play with, and someone who actually wants to play with me.
I met Herb at a session. It was an improv thing, and I think it might have been 1980. I remember looking at him across the room and we were really, clearly hooking up, musically. So, soon after that I got a gig and I started using him. I did some sextet stuff with him, Mack Goldsbury, Paul, Ed, Ray Anderson. There’s a record from that. And then eventually it became a quartet with Herb, Paul, and Ed, and I did my first tour and did a record with that group.
EI: Well, the way you phrase the melodies together is great.
TB: Yeah, yeah. I learned a lot from Herb. He had been around. He had a lot of experience. So things like phrasing, all that stuff. Reading music, even. I learned from him.
EI: He’s got such a phenomenal way of improvising.
TB: I can’t think of too many people I’ve toured with who really improvise. To the point where they’d rather fail than repeat themselves. Herb is always in that moment. I’ve done tours with him where it just blows my mind how creative he is over the period of a tour. How he can just sustain it no matter what else is going on. When he gets on stage, he’s just always able to come up with stuff.
EI: There’s something vaguely theatrical or madcap about Herb, too.
TB: Sure, sure. He kind of wears his emotions on his sleeve. You kind of get the Herb Robertson of that particular day. So if he’s bugged or if he’s happy, it’ll come out that night. You can count on it. That’s what makes him so special. One thing that makes him so special.
EI: There’s that record of his, Certified, where he sings every head at the end. There’s eight songs or whatever and he does a recap where he just sings all the heads really fast. That’s something else, man. Pure insanity.
What about Hank Roberts?
TB: I met Hank in ’77 maybe. There’s a guitar player from St. Louis named Kelvin Bell who brought us together somehow, since he knew I knew Julius. They both came over to my loft on Lawrence Street and we had a session. I know I did something for strings where I used Hank, sometime in the early ’80s. And I remember playing trio with him and Joey Baron over at Joey’s house, right before they started doing Frisell. When I recorded Fulton Street Maul I asked Hank to do it with Alex and Bill. We did a gig in Vancouver before we did the record, and then we started working more. I just loved playing with Hank. Obviously, coming from Julius’s stuff, I just loved the cello, I always wanted to play with a cellist. And alto and cello is just a really killing combination. I always sort of patterned my sound on strings.
EI: I didn’t hear Dogon A.D. until about 4 years ago. But when I heard it for the first time, there was a little click like, “Oh, right!” Abdul Wadud is so strong in the way that Hank is strong. There actually aren’t that many improvising cellists who sort of get in there and play the meat so much. The music, just right away, not even thinking like, “Oh, where’s the bass?” or any of that stuff. Hank is just a strong voice.
TB: He’s just a real natural musician. He’s one of those guys where whatever is in the room will become an instrument.
EI: All these musicians are so important to the sound of your music in this period, of course. We’d better talk about Joey Baron.
TB: Sure. That might’ve been a slower connection. I was a little scared; Joey had quite a reputation as a jazz drummer. I wasn’t sure if we were hooking up or he was into it. And then after Fulton Street, I started the Sanctified Dreams, we did that, probably we had a nice three to four year run with that and Miniature. I played with him a lot. And… Joey is amazing. One of the things I liked about playing with Joey was that there were big holes for everybody to be heard. I think he developed his whole thing of extreme quiet playing when we started doing that band. And especially with Miniature, when we went acoustic, it was just so dynamic. I mean he was unbelievable. It was really like, “wow.”
EI: I know that your music was a really profound experience for him, too. I remember an interview of his where he talks about how he was just astonished at the music you wrote.
TB: I think a lot of those guys were probably a tiny bit suspicious because I didn’t come up the way everyone else did. I didn’t play jazz, I didn’t go through the whole school, I just started doing it myself. But, you know, they were really supportive once they accepted it.
EI: When you listen to those records now – the Columbia Records, Fractured Fairy Tales, Miniature – they still have this aura of incredible freshness. Like, “This is new music.” And I’m sure that’s why all these heavy guys wanted to make it happen and play this music. The drumming in particular is really charismatic. And then Mark Feldman and Mark Dresser are also involved on Fractured. What a great string trio!
TB: With horns it’s a heavy sound. I like the automatic dynamic when you have string players: It’s going to be more transparent. There’s a couple of places on that record where they are kind of a string chorale.
Wow, we play this faster than I remembered.
EI: When does “Hong Kong Sad Song” end and “More Coffee” begin?
TB: The out head is “More Coffee.” Before that, even though there are a few sections, it’s all “Hong Kong Sad Song.”
EI: The second part, where Herb goes nuts over the weird 6/8 rhythm and finally that melody comes in behind him is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.
TB: Back then, I directed things a little more than I would today. I would have requested that total cut and abrupt change of feels, from the fast swing to a faux-African thing. There, I wanted it to be more percussive than harmonic. Then Hank can come in sliding to the A-flat pretty much whenever he wants.
[listening] Herb: Jesus Christ!
EI: This part sounds like epic classical music, not jazz, to me. Besides the fact that there are strings involved, the way the melody moves and arches over dense orchestration reminds me of late-romantic classical music.
TB: I like that interpretation! However, it’s not intentional at all.
I do use visuals as an inspiration. A fast part, a slow part, a dense part, a sparse part: It’s kind of like hip movie music to me. Paul Motian would always tell me, “Yeah, Tim! You’re writing that King Kong music.” In a way he’s right. Especially because everybody in this band was like an actor. Real characters! It wasn’t the instrument, it was really the personality. And I didn’t want to subjugate the personality, I wanted it to blossom. So I invented these simple vehicles for those personalities.
After the strings play free with Joey for a while, the next section with the horn melodies behind them is called the Pee-Wee funk. The rhythm sort of comes from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, from the robot that says, “Ready to assist you, Pee-Wee.” And when I told everybody that was the vibe, they all knew what I meant: assymetrical, weird, “almost groove” stuff.
There was just enough information in what I wrote to make the players avoid cliches and licks. It’s not about styles, it’s about imagery. Every band I’ve ever had was so good that you almost have to trick them into not being so good. Trick them into forgetting what they know. Joey, for example: he’s a great jazz drummer. How do get him to sound not like Joey? You pair him with Mark Dresser. That’s the outest possible combination you can imagine. Hank: he just happens to play cello, he’s like the greatest street musician in a way, just really pure. Herb too: you almost never hear styles with these guys.
EI: All the elements on this track are just so strong, including the composition.
TB: I was less developed as a player than as an idea person at this point. But maybe if had been a more experienced player I would have just had vehicles for me to blow my brains out instead of this stuff. It’s a bit of a rationale, but in the right place, it’s good to have some limitations. When you can do anything on your instrument that doesn’t mean you have ideas...
EI: Who led a better band, Duke Ellington or Art Tatum?
TB: Exactly. Sometimes the raggediest shit is the most evocative, anyway.
EI: Relistening to some of your music in preparation for this interview put me back in touch with how much I love Herb Robertson. He’s really an underrated master of avant-garde trumpet.
TB: Not just avant-garde trumpet: trumpet, period. Or really, just “music.” I don’t think of him as a trumpeter, he’s a vehicle for music. More than anybody else I’ve played with, he’s really in the moment all the time. He probably fails more than anybody else since he never falls back on shit. He’s like, “This is how I feel, and I’m not going to bend.” Incredible commitment to being in the moment. When you are on tour with him, every night is amazing. Even when it doesn’t work, you know that he’s putting it all on the line.
EI: I’ve met him. I don’t know him well, but he’s obviously an incredibly sweet guy and a total madman: A complete package!
TB: Wow, Joey sounds great here, during the Pee-Wee funk section.
EI: This is primo Joey Baron for sure.
TB: After all that is “More Coffee.”
EI: Behind the alto solo, the cello and the bass are doubling the bass line, making it especially wide and powerful. And Joey is so grooving. I know the way Joey played this stuff was very influential: on Dave King, on Jim Black, on so many drummers. This might have been the first time music this weird was powered by such a heavy rock beat. Of course, there were jazz drummers that could play a serious rock groove before this: Eric Gravatt, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham, even cats like Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason if you want to think of it that way. But I’m pretty sure this is the first time that the meter is so asymmetrical and the blowing is so abstract. This concept is now part of the language.
TB: I have no idea.
EI: And now, here’s a new line that takes it out like a flagwaver. How many themes is this? Four or five by now? That’s a lot of composition for a twelve-minute blowing vehicle! I hear a little synthesizer in there, right?
TB: The Casio CZ-101. Joey played it, it was set up with his drums. That was a permanent part of his kit for two or three years. It’s on Miniature too, but I think this record caught it the best.
EI: There’s a statement on the package about no overdubs or edits.
TB: Kevin Whitehead wrote this review of Fulton Street Maul where he made it sound like we were stopping every two minutes and overdubbing, so I wanted to make sure that it was clear that we could play this music...
EI: I remember that! That wasn’t just a review, that was the DownBeat feature “The Five-Year Plan.” That great article helped me get into this music. But perhaps he did overemphasize the overdubbing element of Fulton Street Maul. It is important that what we are listening to here, this long piece of creative music with so many cues, textures, and sections, is a single take with no overdubs.
A good example of your influence in a literal way is the fact that on Dave Douglas’s first record as a leader, Parallel Worlds, there’s basically the string ensemble from Fractured Fairy Tales. It’s Erik Friedlander instead of Hank, but it’s still Dresser and Feldman.
TB: I produced that record.
EI: That’s the Douglas band I loved seeing live when I first moved to New York. At that time you were involved with Bloodcount which had a whole new crew of musicians with a very different chemistry.
TB: I met Michael Formanek at the Vanguard once: he was playing alongside Joey with Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan. We had a nice conversation. He was intrigued, I guess. He kept calling me and I stupidly kind of thought, “Oh, this guy’s gonna have a session, and call a bunch of tunes, and I’m gonna freak out.” So I wouldn’t say no, but I kinda just made it difficult. Finally I just couldn’t think of any other excuses so then I just said “Ok, I’ll do it.” And we got together with Jeff Hirshfield and Mike brought over a couple of his tunes and it was a blast. I could learn his music, it made sense to me, and it was really fun. And he’s an amazing bass player. It was like “wow, this is great.”
I’ve always been playing with bass players as a sideman: Mark Helias, Formanek, Dresser for a little while, and now Drew Gress. So I was on three or four of Formanek’s records, and then we had a little trio thing with Hirshfield and we did a record called Loose Cannon. So when I was thinking of starting a new band, I wanted to do it with him. And then I had met Jim Black, and I wanted to do something that was really a collective sound, not a "horn plus rhythm section" vibe. And I knew Formanek would just totally fuck it up in a good way. And I wanted to have some young guys who were super-dedicated and willing to rehearse a lot and whatever. And so I got Jim, and we were planning to do a trio, and then I started writing, but I just kept writing quartet tunes – I couldn’t write trio. And so I heard about Chris Speed from Jim, since they knew each other from Boston. And then we did a bunch of rehearsals and we went out west, and it was totally happening. Right from the get-go, it was great. They’re all brilliant. Chris, again, it was like that connection with Herb, just finding somebody I could phrase with, and never have to say anything about how to do it.
EI: How long was that band together? A while, right?
TB: ’92 was our first tour. And it ended, roughly, I’d say ’99. And now we’re doing gigs again.
EI: Let’s listen to a lengthy track by Bloodcount. Again, there are so many themes, like successive panels on a large art-piece that you are walking through, with no return of old material.
The third piece was "Mr. Johnson's Blues" from Unwound with Chris Speed, Mike Formanek, and Jim Black (Screwgun, 1997)
TB: I wasn’t really into the head-solo-head idea. I needed other weapons than just blowing on my alto to sustain the performance. And I was interested in the idea of just going forward.
EI: Of course, if you listen to classical music, you know that the very first music you hear might not be heard again. And that changes the way you listen. “Mr. Johnson’s Blues” starts with this insanely strong idea that never returns, and, as a result, I can sort of hear this music echoing into the future of this piece in a different way. If I knew it was going to return I could be more complacent about listening it the first time. Instead this first utterance has a different weight.
Also, the fact that there is almost three full minutes of composed music before the first solo: that has weight.
TB: This 3-CD set, Unwound, is the first time I worked with David Torn. I had these really raw concert tapes made with stereo mics. The Berlin concert was fine but for the other one, the mics were about 50 feet in the air next to a ceiling fan, which is why that disc is called “The Fan.” Torn did an incredible job cleaning up those tapes.
EI: It’s a really a masterstroke to have an exciting gig recorded raw but then mixed and mastered by someone like David Torn.
TB: This was among his earliest mastering things in his garage. We spent two days up there. He knew of me, and I knew of him, and we had met at a festival years ago. Then I was asking around and Wayne Krantz told me to call Torn, who was mastering stuff for friends. I told him the tapes sounded like shit but I wanted to make a record of it anyway. He was very positive. I thought it was really cool that he was a musician and this wasn’t what he usually did. He was just smart enough to know that it would work. It was such a gas, we hit it off right away and worked on this for two straight days in Woodstock. Every time we work together, it’s that kind of insanity.
EI: After the first head, are there any specific directions for the improvising?
TB: No, not really. Every night was different. This time we begin at a low intensity but some nights we would hit it. The bass and drums would stay in the seven and we would just go. Other times we would break down, almost to a complete stop.
EI: Some kind of integrity in the improvisation is enforced by the first three minutes.
TB: One of the things I like to do is have a rhythm section that isn’t a rhythm section. Sometimes, when you know what the form is, and it’s essential for that form to be articulated for the music to make sense, you get these segregated situations where there’s the rhythm section over here and the horns soloing over there. In this situation, because it’s open, it’s nebulous, everyone has to pay attention to everyone else equally. You don’t fall into things like, “Let’s go: let’s play the hippest seven ever played!” Here, we can play in seven – or not.
This is probably simplistic, but when you know the form, it takes a big load off making music. Here, all we know is: something’s going to happen ten minutes from now, when the next thing comes in.
EI: And that’s a vamp.
TB: Yeah. So you kind of know that vamp is going to happen, but that’s it.
EI: How do you tell your bands how to find the vamp?
TB: I don’t. I just say that at some point, “This has to happen.” And, “Don’t telegraph it. It’s best when it just kind of happens.” When it’s a cue it’s less interesting.
Mike is a genius at this shit. He’ll build the tension as long as possible, so that you can barely stand it. That’s really great. Jim is also great at getting there in a natural way, not like an obvious cut.
That’s the structure of this music: getting from section to section somehow – the rest of it is open.
Mike is actually improvising here, although he had a written part. But he knew the music so well that he could do his own thing.
EI: Is that a “coup”? I remember, from that Whitehead piece years ago, you talked about how you and Hank could pull “coups” and not play the written music – just as long as it was a “good coup.”
TB: Yeah, Mike just pulled a “coup.” Hey, it’s improvised music! Do what you feel.
EI: When I think of Bloodcount in my mind, I hear three contrapuntal lines, all playing different material, whether it’s written or improvised.
TB: The later stuff was even more that way, after Marc Ducret joined us.
EI: Chris Speed sounds great on clarinet here. You can can tell he’s making up phrases even he’s never heard before.
TB: You know he was a classical piano prodigy?
TB: Yeah, he got drunk once after a gig at the Unterfahrt in Munich and played us all a bunch of Schubert on the piano. That was his thing as a kid: classical piano, then classical clarinet, then tenor saxophone.
EI: I do hear some kind of classical music in your music. Or is Ornette possibly the gateway to this kind of mournful, slow melody?
TB: I don’t know...
EI: It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that this is a 25-minute piece of music that has a structure that balances interestingly between tight and loose, with as many as five or six themes. And every improviser gets a different context. Formanek's fabulous arco bass solo is a different universe than the alto or the clarinet solos. While I'm singling out individuals, let me also praise the heavy drum solo Jim Black drops on another piece on Unwound, "Bro'ball." Long drum solos can be boring on record but not this one!
TB: The balance of composition and improvisation has always been important to me, to make them coexist in the right way. The only reason to write music is to motivate the improviser. If you’re playing a piece of written music, and you get to the end and you’re like, “Phew, I’m glad that’s over!”, then I don’t know if it’s necessary.
EI: It sounds like on “Mr. Johnson’s Blues” everybody in the ensemble wanted to play!
TB: When I’m teaching or talking about composition, a lot of the times it seems like the problem with the student is: “I wrote the music. Now that it’s time to improvise, what do I do?” Out of habit, they conclude, “OK, this is an eleven-bar tune, so the blowing should be over this eleven bar form.” Maybe that’s all they know, or maybe they think that’s an interesting way to do it, but while that way can be interesting, a lot of times it’s not. For me, I play less cliches and more personally if there aren’t any chord symbols, for example. And I feel that way even with musicians who are consummate improvisers on chord changes: that if you take away the security blanket, it’s more interesting. If those same players have detailed chord changes, they can be like, “Fuck the melody, I can run my riffs on these chords.”
Of course, what makes players like Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis so interesting is how their playing seems ultimately melody-based, not changes-based. Basically, it’s about the melody. When I play as a sideman with someone who writes tunes with hard changes, I always try to find a way in through the melody and through long lines, not bar-to-bar phrases that are beholden to the chords.
I’m envious of players who can play changes really, really well, so naturally that it sounds like free improvisation.
EI: Yeah, but we hardly ever hear that! It’s so true that in the real masters of changes playing like Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis there is some element not describable by the chord changes. It’s dangerous to play jazz or improvised music from the “bottom up,” or looking at the changes first, not the melody. Of course, this has gotten worse over the years: now we are often in an environment where there’s not just a chord symbol but a chord scale constantly suggested, which really makes for uninspired melodic choices.
TB: Right. Well, the first piano player I had an extensive relationship with was Craig Taborn, who doesn’t play “piano” or the chords or chord scales associated with “piano.” Instead, he plays “music.”
Track four was "Time Laugh" from Feign with Craig Taborn and Tom Rainey (Screwgun, 2005)
Near the end of Bloodcount, I started Paraphrase, which was a band that didn’t use any tunes, we only improvised. I noticed that in sessions with Tom Rainey and Drew Gress, I got into these zones I enjoyed that I never get to in my own music. And that kept going; we did a tour. And that transitioned into the trio with Craig Taborn and then Science Friction. So all these things kind of overlap.
EI: Drew and Tom are so versatile. I remember them playing relatively conservatively with Fred Hersch one week and playing completely free with you the next. Tom’s the kind of free player that can really shape things in such a dramatic way. One improvised gig at the Internet Cafe with Tony Malaby, Mark Helias, and Tom Rainey was one of the best gigs I’ve ever heard.
TB: I dig Tom because he’s very decisive. He’ll make decisions and stick with them, and not just kind of wait for somebody to do something that makes him do something. He’ll take the ball. You know, sometimes you get caught in this circling thing where nobody really takes a stand and you’re sort of chasing each other’s tail around. That’s what I liked about that band. The other thing I liked about it was it was almost, even though we were playing free, it could sound straighter than the other bands. It wasn’t just that one zone which is a bit of a cliché. So it was really great for me, because it sort of built my confidence as a player, to be able to sustain something like that in a trio format. You know, especially melodically, because you really have to keep it coming; keep making up tunes.
EI: In addition to Dave King and myself, the other peer I know who obsessed about your music as a Minnesota teenager is Craig Taborn, who has now played with you for several years.
TB: I think the first time we played was like late ’99. I kept running into him on the street, and I was totally intrigued, even though I never heard him play electric at all. Just from talking to him about music, I thought, “Ok, this guy’s gonna be great. This guy is nuts.” And so I invited him over to do a session with Tom. And I think he was avoiding it in the same way I avoided Formanek. I think he was sort of not sure, or scared, or something. And we did this one session, it was really fun, and he played electric, and I was like “Yeah, this is it.” You know ’cause I was looking for something that would… had the guitar thing, had the bass thing, and then had the flexibility of a piano player. Something to get a big sound out of three people, and this was it. So we started that trio, Hard Cell. And then eventually it went acoustic when I got tired of getting those lousy wurlitzers on gigs.
EI: You had Django Bates on an early record?
TB: Yeah, in ’93. We did a grant tour in England and added him. I was commissioned to write music. And then we did that record Caos Totale, which was a blast.
EI: Django sounds great on that. But I think Craig was your first piano player in a working band, though.
TB: I’d played with Marilyn Crispell, we’d made a duo record sometime in there in the ’90s. But working with Craig was the first time I was trying to write for piano extensively. And that changed a lot of stuff, I think: probably my writing changed. That was a really important moment for me, going electric and writing the stuff for Craig. And then Science Friction came after that, with Marc Ducret added to the musicians of Hard Cell. We did a trio gig in Paris and I sent Marc all the music and asked him to sit in. And then with one hour of rehearsal, he learned every tune, right before the gig. We had this amazing gig, and I decided to do that record. We started touring both, doing both things.
EI: By the way, what the fuck is this cover for Feign? This is not a normal Tim Berne cover - it can’t be Bryam -
TB: Well, he still designed it, but those are Robert Lewis photos. Yeah, for this one we decided to be a little different. That’s the beauty of Byram: I can say, “Let’s do a ‘non-Byram cover’ and he’ll respond, ‘Ok, cool.’”
EI: Let’s talk about Tom Rainey a little bit, who fits your music like a glove. You told me before that you’ve known him a long time?
TB: I had a band with him in 1982! The other members were Ratzo Harris, Bill Frisell, and Herb Robertson. We existed for about a year: we did maybe 7 or 8 gigs. We played at Sweet Basil... There’s some bootleg (from Poland?) of a gig we did at Roulette.
EI: Was Tom playing then the way he does now?
TB: I don’t know! You would have to ask him... The big breakthrough for me playing with Tom was in Paraphrase with Drew, where there were no charts. After doing that for a few years, and having it be totally amazing, I learned something about how to write for Tom. Also, not having a bass, just a trio with Craig, that was significant.
EI: Not in his feel, really, but something in the way Tom tunes his drums and sets up hits reminds me of Mel Lewis, of all people. Maybe not Mel specifically but some old-school drummer comfortable with big bands. There’s some real jazz authenticity in his vibe.
TB: I don’t think that’s far off; I know he loves Mel Lewis. He’s certainly a great orchestrator, especially in those bands without bass.
EI: You can hear that here, on “Time Laugh.” One reason I like Feign so much is that it is one of the best documents of Craig Taborn playing acoustic piano that I’ve yet come across. He’s nice and hot in the mix, too – even louder than the saxophone at times – so you can really hear what a strong pianist he is.
TB: He’s insane. One of the things about that band is that I don’t want it to sound like I’m soloing too much. I want it to be a collective. The obvious thing is to make the horn too loud. Here, everything Craig is playing is important.
EI: Taborn’s talent is enormous. He’s also the most mysterious and seductive personality around. Sometimes I think he should have gotten the gig in the Bad Plus instead of me, since he was the one playing trio with Dave and Reid when they were all in high school.
TB: I love him in the electric stuff we do, too. He has a gift with the electronic side of things that he just can’t ignore. Sometimes he will set up a weird, long loop that he himself doesn’t seem to know where it came from. That’s really great to play with!
EI: I’ve seen that pleased, quizzical expression on his face when he sits back from his array of gear burbling away, happy at the mayhem he has unleashed in unknowable ways.
EI: So you have a new band that just played a gig at The Stone for the first time?
TB: I’m just trying to get around and play with some different people: Shane Endsley, Matt Mitchell, Mary Halvorson, John Hébert, Gerald Cleaver... I like looking for some different musicians, putting together some weird chemistry and seeing what happens. There’s something about starting a band that’s just really exciting, especially writing new music for people who don’t know me well.
EI: The name of the band is Adobe Probe? What does that mean?
TB: Adobe is just adobe. A-d-o-b-e. Probe… use your imagination. I’m not sure. I can use mine.
EI: God, did I really just ask that tired-ass question? Sorry. Also sorry I couldn’t make the Stone when Adobe Probe played; how did it go?
TB: I was really happy – it was a blast.
EI: So we’re gonna hear a bit more of this band, you think?
TB: You’re gonna hear a bit more of this band.
EI: Alright. I’m looking forward to it.
(Check out this video of Matt Mitchell playing Tim's piece "Huevos Expanded" at the Stone.)