On førage pianist Matt Mitchell ostensibly plays the music of Tim Berne, the saxophonist/bandleader whose most recent group is Snakeoil, in which Mitchell plays.
But Mitchell doesn’t play any of Berne’s compositions in their entirety, nor does he take any as he finds them. And, as Berne explains, this is no “faux classical record of solo piano pieces. It is,” he says, “Matt’s vision seen through the prism of my compositions.” Its title refers to the way Mitchell “forages through (my) music to find the parts that…inspire him as an improvisor.”
I’ve gleaned from press blurb that Mitchell begins one piece, “Œrbs”, with a loose version of the head from Berne’s “Not Sure” (from the first Snakeoil album) then improvises a bridge to the intro from “OC/DC” (Shadow Man); and that the longer “Cløùdē” interpolates two sections of music derived from “Spare Parts” (Snakeoil) with another from “Thin Ice” (The Shell Game). It would take deeper listening than I’ve so far managed to realise that for myself.
So although the balance of composition and open improvisation is very Berne-like, this isn’t recognisably Berne-ian music. Mitchell has blended the material he cherry-picked from Berne’s compositions into fresh improvisations, finding new angles on the music, making it new. These are not simply new arrangements, and it’s hard to say how much of Berne’s original intent and substance Mitchell has retained, besides the potency of his inspiration.
The piano isn’t an instrument Berne favours. Until Snakeoil it was heard only occasionally in his music, played by Craig Taborn in the primarily electric Science Friction trio, amplifying the angularity of the anchor points that waymark Berne’s serpentine charts. Here divested here of the lithe snaking of Berne’s alto sax lines and any other counterpoint, Mitchell’s solo music is necessarily more homophonic than anything Berne might come up with.
The result is a powerfully concentrated album of new music, much of it more intimately seductive than Berne’s typicaly sinuous and doggedly soulful sound, but just as compulsively compelling and intensely powerful.
Mitchell has described a longstanding obsession with Berne’s music, requesting certain scores for study long before their eventual meeting, and that perhaps tells in the étude-like nuance that characterises the opening cut “Pænë” and the more sonorous and densely knotty “Trāçęś”, with its determined string of concluding variations.
On “Àäš”, one of two 13 minute cuts, Mitchell works shimmering, almost hallucinatory beauty into something more darkly rhapsodic, and the moodier “Räåy” is rhapsodic too, notwithstanding the urban angularity of its flow.
“Räåy”, like “Trāçęś”, has the sort of concentrated fury you’d usually have to go to Keith Jarrett for. In the latter it’s concurrent with a game-like quality, later reprised in “Œrbs”, in which Mitchell gets caught up and almost carried away with a similar flow of concentrated variations.
“Cløùdē”, the album’s second 13 minute piece, starts out more gently but builds to a rhapsody of rolling thunder. That density passes, dissipating in a light rain, a tinkle of ivory droplets that clears the air for the balm of “Sîïñ”, which, in turn, returns us to a reflective fragility similar to that of “Pænë”.
This is a fabulous album, closer in style, overall, to the mystifyingly under-praised Marilyn Crispell than anyone else I can think of. And Crispell, naturally, is the only pianist Berne has recorded duets with.
førage is issued on Berne’s indie Screwgun label, and is produced by Berne’s go-to guy David Torn, who also produced Mitchell’s Pi Recordings albums Fiction (solo, 2013) and Vista Accumulation (quartet, 2015). Its artwork is by Steven Byram, who’s been Berne’s visual foil for decades – cf. their joint art book, Spare, published by Screwgun last year with a ‘bonus’ live Snakeoil album.
Berne fans will no doubt want to check førage out, but anyone with a taste for piano music, or for jazz or new music in general should do so too. In fact, if you actively dislike Berne’s music, don’t assume you won’t like this. Mitchell has translated his passion for it into something that stands apart, with a range, from étude-like meditation to panoramic psychodrama, that’s pretty dazzling. Berne should be proud.
Matt Mitchell – piano.