Cream reunited. So did other irreconcilables such as the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. Led Zeppelin, or a version of it, is due to play next month in London. Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood presented as close to a Blind Faith reunion as we're ever likely to see in Chicago last July, and will do it again at Madison Square Garden in February. The seminal British death-metal band Carcass is now confirmed to appear at the Wacken Open Air Festival next summer.
It should have come as no surprise, then, to learn that Tim Berne's Bloodcount will be playing at Joe's Pub on February 3, nor that he is penning fresh charts for the occasion. But a surprise it was, and my head's been buzzing with the news all day. Accompanying that news is Seconds, a CD/DVD set of Bloodcount recordings from 1994 and 1997 recently issued on Berne's Screwgun label.
Something like nine years have passed since Berne last played with Bloodcount, his acoustic quartet with fellow reedist Chris Speed, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Jim Black. Originally the group was a quintet with French guitarist Marc Ducret, memorably documented by three discs recorded by the JMT label during a four-night stint at Instants Chavires in Montreuil, which took place in 1994.
Those discs -- Lowlife, Poisoned Minds and Memory Select, long out of print but now available again on Winter + Winter -- introduced a new phase in Berne's writing. He'd dabbled in extended forms from close to the beginning of his career, and on two albums by Caos Totale, the group that immediately preceded Bloodcount, Berne took on large forms in earnest. "The Legend of P-1," on Pace Yourself, lasted more than 26 minutes. The follow-up, Nice View, included three tracks that clocked in at roughly 21, 18 and 38 minutes, respectively.
Suites and medleys were hardly uncommon in jazz history; Ellington and Mingus were prime examples. Coltrane's oceanic late-period performances could extend a simple tune like "Afro-Blue" to an hour's length. Anthony Braxton investigated long forms, naturally, and other examples can be named. But the singlemindedness with which Berne pursued the notion in Bloodcount seemed relatively unprecedented.
Berne's compositions on Lowlife, "Bloodcount" and "Prelude: The Brown Dog Meets the Spaceman," are respectively 22 and 37 minutes. (Between those two tracks comes a 17-minute medley of tunes by Berne's mentor, Julius Hemphill.) Poisoned Minds includes two tracks of 27 and 41 minutes' duration. The title track of Memory Select was an extraordinary 51 minutes; the other tune on the disc, "Jazz Off," was relatively concise at 18 minutes.
But Ducret was (and remains) rarely available for work in the U.S., especially not the guerrila trekking that Berne would undertake in Bloodcount's duration. So to my mind, the quartet heard on the early Screwgun releases Unwound, Discretion and Saturation Point (and now in the audio-only portions of Seconds), the one I saw live repeatedly during those years, and whose audience-taped shows I scarfed up like a Deadhead is -- with no disrespect to Ducret -- the definitive unit.
Not everything during that period was a marathon: most pieces settled into a 10-15 minute range. But the concept of explosive extended narratives unbounded by formal constraints persisted during this vibrant stretch. Berne's compositions followed a basic arc of sustained tension and release that built to a powerful conclusion. Sometimes this would take the form of an explosive burst; just as often it would be a quiet, sometimes seemingly ironic coda.
Berne, long admired as a composer and conceptualist, was coming into his own as an estimable saxophonist here, spanning a range from boppish lines and funky riffs to textural scribbles and scrawls. Formanek was a rock-solid time-keeper, and one of the very few bassists whose extended solos were never less than compelling.
Speed and Black, then recently of Human Feel renown (with the Balkan-jazz hybrid of Pachora a growing concern), were very young and looked even younger. They were equal partners here. Speed's seeming reticence provided a foil to the gabby Berne. His plaintive clarinet wriggled into microtonal crevices; his tenor saxophone offered rhythm patterns and reserved asides, until it exploded into abrasive yawps of energy. Berne and Speed might lock into tandem figures or jagged counterpoint; just as often they would rub against one another in crowded micro-intervals that would have made Ligeti smile.
The blindingly creative Black provided a new revelation per second. No other Berne drummer -- not Alex Cline, not Bobby Previte, not even the improbably versatile Joey Baron -- had so completely internalized the twitchy funk of Berne's union of brain and booty. Nor had anyone expressed that impulse in a manner so authoritative that it seemed inevitable. And few drummers outside the European free-improvisation realm paid nearly as much attention to the particulars of every sound that resulted from the contact of a stick or brush with a membrane or metal surface. Absolutely no one reveled so thoroughly in the sound of an undampened bass drum.
Bloodcount, then, was a peak for Berne as both a bandleader and a composer. In absorbing Seconds -- two audio discs from 1997, including a few tunes previously known only in tapers' circles (and I've got a box full of cassettes myself), as well as a sharp DVD transfer of filmmaker Süsanna Schonberg's impossibly rare quasi-documentary Eyenoises, shot during the 1994 Instants Chavires run with Ducret -- I'm taken back to a time when I firmly believed this was the world's best working band. Hearing it now, I don't think I was wrong.
Which brings me to the reason I'm blogging this here instead of attempting to write it up for a mainstream print outlet: I'm far from objective. In a way, I was a small part of it.
At the time, I was freelancing for Berne as a consultant and publicist, helping him launch Screwgun, his second indie label. My main contributions were writing press releases and marketing solicitation copy for the label, as well as spending long periods standing in line at the Canal Street post office with a bag full of promo packages I'd assembled at home. I also wrote the original, laughably lo-tech Screwgun website in HTML with a text editor. Despite the congeniality of the situation, the work felt important.
I'm credited in the liner notes of the early brown-sleeve Screwgun releases. In the first edition of Unwound, I was "Executive in Charge." That was certainly not the case in any realistic way, but there's Berne's sense of camaraderie for you.
All of which means I now have to recuse myself from writing in an authoritative, critical voice regarding a band that meant more to me than any other during that period, even though time and circumstance eventually took me far away from Berne's orbit. (Even now, I have to force myself to type "Berne's" instead of "Tim's.") Hearing Seconds, the music and its making remain as potent as ever.
As Billy Bragg put it, "That's the price I pay for loving you the way that I do."
Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 10 (comp. Cooke) - Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle (EMI Classics)
Frederic Chopin - Waltzes - Alexandre Tharaud (Harmonia Mundi)
Judd Greenstein - Folk Music, Sing Along; Patrick Burke - Hypno-germ, All Together Now; Mark Dancigers - Hanging There, Cloud Bank; Nico Muhly - How About Now - NOW Ensemble (New Amsterdam, due in January)
R/S One - Snow Mud Rain (Erstwhile)
Tim Berne's Bloodcount - Seconds (Screwgun)
Enslaved - Mardraum - Beneath the Within (Osmose)