Tim Berne, The Independent

Tim Berne, The Independent

by James Hale

copyright © 2002 James Hale

Anyone seeking proof of the power of recorded music need look no further than saxophonist Tim Berne. In 1974, the Syracuse native was far more interested in basketball than music as a form of recreation, but an encounter with Dogon A.D., a 1972 recording by saxophonist Julius Hemphill struck him like a lightning bolt. Hemphill's combination of an R&B sensibility and boundless improvisation inspired the 20-year-old Berne to leave Oregon, where he'd been enrolled in Lewis and Clark College, and head to New York City in search of the source of his inspiration.

A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Hemphill was a 34-year-old who had been an influential member of the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group collective before migrating to Chicago and then New York. Berne's apprenticeship to the older musician included formal saxophone lessons, as well as less structured teachings in everything from record promotion to spirituality. Because Hemphill presented his student with a holistic approach to music it never occurred to Berne that anyone would learn the technical side of playing jazz without also mastering the less-tangible art of guiding your own career.

So, Hemphill helped create more than just a first-rate instrumentalist; Berne is also a well-respected self-starter in the jazz business and a role model for numerous younger musicians. In 1979, he founded his own record label, Empire, and released five albums featuring himself and other up-and-coming artists like guitarist Bill Frisell, cornetist Olu Dara and bassist Ed Schuller.

His Empire recordings led to short-lived relationships with the Italian Soul Note label and Columbia Records. In creative music circles, Berne's two-year tenure with Columbia, which resulted in Fulton Street Maul and Sanctified Dreams, is seen as an abject lesson in how major corporations mishandle artists who don't fit into a pre-defined category. But, although Columbia couldn't figure out how to promote someone as creative and stylistically expansive as Berne, the label did give early worldwide exposure to musicians like Frisell, drummer Joey Baron, cellist Hank Roberts and trumpeter Herb Robertson.

Roberts and Baron later joined Berne in the band Miniature, a cooperative group whose two recordings helped launch the saxophonist's fertile seven-year relationship with German producer Stefan Winter's adventurous JMT label. In addition to the trio with Roberts and Baron, Berne recorded his superb Fractured Fairy Tales (1989), a loving tribute to Hemphill, Diminutive Mysteries (1993), several projects by his inventive ensemble Caos Totale, and three landmark live performances by the raucous Bloodcount.

During his tenure with JMT, Berne also found himself attracting an increasing number of compositional commissions -- including works for the Kronos Quartet, the Rova Saxophone Quartet and the British Arts Council -- but the period provokes mixed feelings in Berne since the sale of JMT's catalogue to Polygram meant the disappearance of a large chunk of his body of work. A recent agreement between Winter and Polygram will see many of Berne's recordings resurface in coming months, but the experience reminded Berne of the advantages of independence.

"I decided that ownership is the main thing," says Berne, "even if it means finding non-mainstream way of marketing your music. What it comes down to is that I'd rather be in control of my own destiny."

His reaction to the JMT experience was to create another new label, Screwgun, which has been the focus of his energy since 1996. In addition to new recordings by Bloodcount, Screwgun has also released works by British pianist and frequent Berne collaborator Django Bates, French guitarist Marc Ducret, duets between Berne and bassist Michael Formanek, and two recordings by Paraphrase.

Featuring bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey, Paraphrase is strictly an improvising band, a reality that makes it Berne's most satisfying long-term project. "With my other bands there's a certain amount that you always know. With Paraphrase, though, there is a lot of trust between us and always a lot of surprises. I'm a restless person and I need to be surprised by my own music. I'm always trying to find things that are challenging, so my playing is always changing a fair amount."

Listeners can hear a lot of change within any one of Paraphrase's instant compositions since Berne is one of the most discursive saxophonists since John Coltrane. His solos frequently stretch out into the 20-minute range as he explores every harmonic possibility of any given idea. What separates Berne from post-Coltrane blowers who don't know the difference between saying it all and saying it all well -- and what keeps reminding listeners of Hemphill's influence -- is the dynamic complexity in his music. An extended Paraphrase piece might shift gears a number of times, with diverse tempos blending into a seamless whole, or alternate radically between solo saxophone blasts and furious three-way conversations.

Above all, Paraphrase is a live creature. Both their CDs -- Visitation Rites and Please Advise -- were recorded in concert, and Berne is content to take the band out on the road once a year or so, even though, without new recordings, it's not always evident that Paraphrase is still active.

"Recording the band always presents an interesting question for me because I have to ask myself whether I should just keep putting out recordings or focus on one or two things. In this business it's a necessary evil to have lots of different projects on the go. That's just an economic reality. That's okay, because it's good for me to play with different people all the time. When Drew and Tom and I come together as Paraphrase, I always know that it's going to be something new for all of us."

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