Back in 1997, Tim Berne had recently seen ten years of work for his friend Stefan Winter’s JMT label apparently disappear “down the drain” after a disastrous Polygram/Verve buyout. During an interview I conducted, he noted ruefully that: “With the exception of ECM, there just aren’t too many people who have the staying power to stay in the business and remain true to their principles.*” Subsequently channelling his frustrations into his own Screwgun label – output dominated by pugnaciously raw, small unit improv productions, whose values he described as “on a shoestring…guerrilla style” – Berne spoke wistfully of his hope to return at some point to the relative comforts of label representation and decently financed studio recording.
Now on ECM, Berne has got his wish, and he’s making some of the best music of his career. After debuting on the label as a sideman on titles by close associates David Torn and Michael Formanek, the first work under Berne’s own name was 2012’s Snakeoil. Manfred Eicher’s production invested that album with a felicity not previously evident in Berne’s otherwise excellent recordings. On Shadow Man, production duties are shared between Berne and producer/guitarist David Torn. The album still benefits from the clarity and precision we expect from ECM, and there are none of Torn’s studio manipulations (as heard briefly on Berne’s Science Friction and in full effect on Torn’s Prezens), but Shadow Man is full-blooded Berne. He even took the photo on the cover.
Still, there are a few fresh touches. A fragile acoustic piano, percussion and vibes intro to “Son of Not so Sure” takes on the sonorities of an electro-acoustic piece before Oscar Noriega’s clarinet slowly opens it up to Berne on alto. The characteristic arc of the melody is as instantly recognisably his as Albert Ayler’s were his own; his tone and note shaping likewise soulful and full of yearning. “Static” is initially more urgent, moving from an tumbling momentum through breakdown and recalibration, before the quartet regroup on powerful, mid-tempo ostinatos, expanding to occupy cavernous sonic space. The balm of the following take on Paul Motian’s “Psalm” is as lovely as it is surprising. Excepting only his mentor Julius Hemphill, Berne rarely interprets another composer’s work on his own dime. “Psalm” acknowledges Motian’s support for Berne on his early days in NYC, and his playing on one of Berne’s earliest works, 1984’s Songs and Rituals in Real Time.
The remaining tracks document Berne’s highly individual, ambitiously expansive compositional style in full: “OC/DC” runs to 22:55; “Socket” and “Cornered (Duck)” each just a few minutes shorter. These works resist summation. Their development isn’t episodic, rather freewheeling blends of improvisational freedoms and compositional rigour; thrillingly dynamic music driven by urgent, unfettered passions, yet cut with telling precision. “OC/DC” is particularly intense – a collectively intricate, tightly-focused, high-octane enmeshment. “Socket” is initially more spacious, spotlighting Matt Mitchell’s piano both solo and in duet with Berne. The temperature rises ineluctably with a muscular surge of improv, but resolves into a percussion feature, and a passage of beautiful but still intense interplay between piano and Oscar Noriega’s clarinet, before a return to the main theme. Finally there’s the likewise complex, but turbulent and ultimately scorching “Cornered (Duck)”, featuring Berne as soloist at his imperious, impassioned best.
This is a superb album from an artist I’d now rank among the very best.
Tim Berne alto saxophone; Oscar Noriega clarinet, bass clarinet; Matt Mitchell piano; Ches Smith drums, vibraphone, percussion.