Interview by John Howard (September 1998)Bandleader, composer and saxophonist Tim Berne has created a body of work that is distinguished by its breadth and imagination. Containing complex compositional structures and intense freewheeling improv, Berne's songs represent some of the greatest modern jazz that has been created in the past 20 years. In addition, he has formed and run two labels, lead trios such as Paraphrase, Miniature and Big Satan and played as a sideman and in duet with the likes of Bill Frisell, John Zorn, Mark Helias and Nels Cline. When people wonder at the state of jazz, the problem may be that there are not more Tim Berne's. In many ways he is like a Charlie Mingus of today.
One of the pleasures of following Berne's career has been following his development. From his first records Berne's compositions showed a confidence that was far beyond his years. In addition, his bands featured established jazzmen like Vinny Golia or John Carter, among many others. The records were not blowing sessions but featured Berne's own complex and well thought out compositions. From record to record, Berne's compositions have expanded or contracted, but the confidence and assurance that fills them has never seemed to waver. In that time, the bands that Berne has lead have been filled with some of the finest jazz musicians now working, people like Herb Robertson, Mark Dresser, Joey Baron, Hank Roberts. But, more interestingly, Berne has also blossomed as a saxophonist, picking up the baritone and developing a wonderful rugged and expressive style on the alto.
To single out any recordings by Berne is difficult, but it is worth it to mention a few. The album that got me into him was Sanctified Dreams, recently reissued on Koch. To hear Berne's compositions at perhaps their knottiest, try Pace Yourself. The Empire Box, recently issued on Berne's own Screwgun label represents all of his self released records from his Empire Label. From his most recent group, Bloodcount, Discretion is a good starting point, a great raw live recording. As a sideman, his work on John Zorn's Spy vs Spy album is good and that record is fun; noisy, chaotic versions of Ornette Coleman songs. In smaller group settings, Berne turns to the baritone a little more and his recent releases with Big Satan (on Winter & Winter) and Paraphrase (on Screwgun) are both as interesting as they are different from each other. Paraphrase is a largely improvised sax/drums/bass trio, while Big Satan is a more introverted sax/guitar/drums operation. The place to start however, is with Berne's tribute to Julius Hemphill, Diminutive Mysteries. A stunning tour de force, the album ranges in mood from the sublimely beautiful "Writhing Love Lines" to Berne's own "The Maze," 21 minutes of tangling and untangling structure. Not just a great Tim Berne album, but one of the finest jazz albums ever made.
Thanks to Tim for thoughtfully answering these questions and to Steve Smith for making this happen.
PSF: How did you get started? Who were your initial inspirations?
I got started around '74. When I was growing up, I was really into soul music. Sam and Dave, Johnny Taylor, Aretha, Wilson Pickett, you name it. A lot of the Stax/Volt stuff. A friend of mine later turned me onto some more adventurous jazz (laughs). I got into that and started going to concerts. I think the first show I went to was McCoy Tyner at the Vanguard when I was 16. Then I saw Sun Ra in New York quite a bit and Sam Rivers at Studio RivBea.
PSF: What was it about that music that struck you?
Well, one of the biggest inspirations to me was a Julius Hemphill record called Dogon A.D. (1972). It had this AMAZING groove and he had this soulful sound that really bridged the soul music that I had been listening to and this more adventurous jazz.
I don't really know why you get into something like that. I was pretty curious by nature and I would like the fact that I would get these records and not know what was going on. I had to actually work to get into it, rather than just picking it up and immediately obvious. And I got into that. I used to buy records that I never heard, just so that I could really sit there and discover it after I bought it instead of hearing something and then saying 'I gotta have that.' These records are like Ornette and all that kind of stuff. I would decide that these records were important and then put in the time (to listen).
PSF: When you started recording as a leader, were you accepted right away or did you have to work hard to convince people to play your music?
I had to work hard and rightfully so. New York's a tough place. People aren't gonna just jump for you. I had a lot to learn and I was always playing with musicians that were much more experienced than me. So I was pretty humble and pretty insecure but I always had a belief in what I was doing or a certain confidence. It was WAY beneath the surface but it was there somewhere, otherwise I wouldn't have had the balls to do what I was doing so early. I wasn't under the false impression that I was some bad motherfucker. But on the other hand, I was confident about my ideas. So, I was able to convey that to people that had a lot more experience than me and get their attention. Even though, some of them were a little suspicious. Which is fine... I wasn't out to prove anything- I was just looking for guys to play this music. I enjoyed playing it. I just wanted to play. I'm sure there were guys who were just looking at me out of the side but who cares? (laughs)
PSF: Early on, you used to go out to the West Coast to record? Did being out there help you with your work?
Sure. I met Alex Cline, a drummer who had been playing with Julius. That's how I met up with other guys there, like Nels Cline, Vinny Golia and John Carter. I never lived there but I just liked going out there to play with Alex. There were just guys that were really supportive and I enjoyed playing with them at the time.
PSF: Did those records get attention right away?
It was a lot easier than I thought it would be. The stuff would sell enough to warrant doing it. I'd get enough reviews. I wasn't looking for trouble, if you know what I mean (laughs). I just did it to document my music. I always feel that the only way that I can progress is to document a certain thing and then I think making those final decisions somehow leads you to your next step. It's hard to go on without doing that.
PSF: Was it hard to get people to take them seriously when you put them out yourself?
Not really. Back in those days, there weren't that a whole lot of independent labels so any time a record came out, people took it seriously. It's so cheap to do it. Anybody can do it. It's not a big investment.
PSF: Did you manage to keep a working band together at that time?
Well, I was doing about a five gigs a year at that time, between '78 and '82. So a working band... (laughs) Nobody was working. I certainly wasn't. When I had a concert, that was a big deal for me. I hadn't been around and Europe was out of question, I hadn't even thought about it. Where do you play in New York? Every time I did a gig, I had to rent a loft for 100 bucks. I certainly wasn't playing in any clubs. When I was studying with Julius Hemphill, that's how he was doing it in New York. Everybody was doing it, just playing for the door. When I met him, he was doing two gigs a year and he was already established. There wasn't any place to play otherwise, except for Tin Palace or Studio RivBea. The really established guys were struggling for those gigs.
PSF: How do you feel about those records and compositions now?
I think that in a way, having just put out a reissue of all stuff (Empire box set) and having to listen to it when I was remastering it, idea-wise I was at where I am now. It was just at a more primitive stage in terms of level of sophistication. There was a certain... simplicity that I appreciated when I went back to hear it. One of the hardest things that I find now is trying to be simple. The stuff that makes me cring the most is my playing, just because in twenty years, I've hopefully developed a lot more, rhythmically and what not.
In terms of organizing ideas and writing them down and the band that I had (which was great), I think it's OK. I kind of like it in a way. It's accurate for those periods that it documents.
PSF: How did you get hooked up with Columbia/Sony?
It was kind of a freak. This guy, Gary Lucas, who I knew growing up was working there doing ad copy. He was trying to find shit to produce. He started coming into Tower (Records) and started harassing me. He wanted tapes and I finally I gave him some stuff, including a duo I did with (Bill) Frisell. I think he heard part of that and decided that he could sell it as 'new age.' He pitched it to them as a 'new age' thing from this nice little white guy, unbeknownst to me (laughs). So, he got a deal. It was a pretty bad deal but it was still a deal. It surprised me that he got it together. It was great. That's when I did my first record for them, Fulton Street Maul. He was pretty nervous in the studio- he was saying 'you know, this might be a little out for them.' At that point, I had no illusions of grandeur. I said 'well, it's too late now.' I figured that I'd make a good record and just see what happened. I couldn't sell out if my life depended on it because I don't know how to.
PSF: Did they give you freedom or was there pressure to be commercial?
They gave me the freedom because they were too stupid to figure out what else to do. They were trying to figure out how they got into this mess and no one wanted to go near it. Ironically, when it came out, it got unbelivable press. So, they had to do another one and it was like 'oh, Jesus.' So I did the other one and no one came near me. I hired my own producer, picked the studio and the mastering engineer. They just sent me the money. It was GREAT. I'm really proud of that record (Sanctified Dreams). Of course, it got great reviews and then they phased me out. That was fine with me. I had already done another record by the time I was dropped. I was ready by that time.
PSF: When you moved to JMT, your compositions seemed to open up a bit, what brought that about?
Yeah... There was a transition for me. When I did the thing with Frisell and then Fulton Street Maul and then Sanctified, I was sort to getting into other kinds of stuff. For JMT, I did the Minature record (self-titled) and Fractured Fairy Tales, which was probably one of my favorite ones. That's when I started to get really dense, really crazy. Lotta writing, lotta background, overlapping things. That really kind of peaked on that record. From there, I set off, gradually getting into longer pieces and suites and things that just built on each other, rather than just theme and variation and ending. I like the idea of not stopping and an accumulating effect and having each section lead to the next rather than just go back.
PSF: What led you to this change in your composing style?
I don't really know. (pauses) I can't say that it was anything that I listened to that led me there. I think that I just got this idea of using a book or a movie as a model. More of a narrative thing. Since I wasn't dealing with changes most of the time, I wasn't locked into the song form. I was just a natural thing. I didn't like stopping at gigs (laughs). I didn't like doing that, talking and then trying to create a mood again. I liked to have the band's concentration and focus to be really locked in because you would have to sustain something for 30 or 40 minutes.
PSF: Did Stefan Winter (at JMT) allow you more freedom?
Stefan was cool. As far as recording, he was great. Every once in a while, he might disagree with me but he always deferred to me. He knew I was pretty sure about what I was doing. He also knew that he couldn't talk me out of it anyway. And he was into the music and liked being a part of it. I had no problem (with him)- he was the last person I worried about when I had to make a record. I knew he was on my side.
In terms of making the records and packaging them, it was an ideal situation. After that, it got a little weird, maybe due to some of his inexperience. Any time you have a major distributor, you're in trouble when you're trying to 'difficult' music. These guys just don't have a clue and their attitude is so self-defeating that it's just never going to work. They don't want it to work, really.
PSF: What made you want to start your own record company after this?
When JMT ended and he sold the label without my knowledge, I just figured 'fuck, if that can happen with a friend of mine...' Also, just the experience of the distribution thing with Polygram. By the end of the day, I wasn't getting any reviews. They weren't sending out press copies. They basically didn't want it to do well. After being with all these different labels and watching all this different stuff go out of print and seeing the scenario repeat itself, I was thinking 'I'm never going to have any music out. I'm going to make tons of records and it's all going to be gone.'
So, I just figured, fuck it. My first idea was to do this bloodcount box set and make it as cheaply as possible and almost posture it as a bootleg- that this was the rawest shit you could get. I was going to sell it by mail and at gigs and see what would happen. Then we kind of stumbled into this packaging thing. It was just the right timing and with that band working all the time, that was so successful. So I just said 'well, I'll start a label and do it.' I sold many copies as many copies on my label as Stefan did. And I owned it. And I told him that the only way that I could continue to record is if I can own the tapes. You can license them and do whatever you want but I had to own so that I never loose them. But he didn't want to do it. No one was going to do that. So I just decided to do it myself.
And it's been a gas, other than being time consuming. We have Steve Byram doing all the art and my wife is in the record business and she's done tons of work. It's really inspiring to be able to start something like this and be able see it work after all these people telling me 'you can't do it' and telling me how hard it is.
PSF: And you're helping other artists too with your company.
Yeah, it's gratifying. Also, it's with guys that I love. It's great to do a solo bass record (for Michael Formanek) and these other records that would have never happened.
PSF: How did the Julius Hemphill tribute happen? Were you pleased with the results?
Oh yeah. It was my idea. I was talking to (David) Sanborn about Julius one day and he used to play his music a lot. I always wanted to do something for Julius. I didn't know quite which way to go and I was a little nervous about doing it but that just seemed like a cool idea. So I just called him up and said 'what do you think about me and Sanborn doing this?' He said 'it's a great idea.' Sanborn thought it was a great idea too so the three of us got together, talked about it and then it happened. That's one of my favorite record and just the fact that Julius liked it meant a lot to me. He didn't come to the sessions- I had to bring him the tapes and I was scared shitless that he might like it. That was just an amazing experience for me.
PSF: How did Caos Totale evolve into bloodcount? What were the differences in approach for each group?
I was looking to start a new band and Caos had kind of played itself out. It was a lot of fun but everyone in the band was leading their own band and it was just harder and harder to tour and get everyone's attention. And I really wanted to do a smaller group with more improvising, playing and I wanted something that was more collective. So, I had known Jim (Black) and Mike (Formanek) and I heard of Chris (Speed) and I just decided to check it out. Chris played clarinet, which interested me.
The difference is that I set out to make bloodcount a collective, improvised band. There's a lot of written music but basically, everyone in the band had a lot of input into how things were going in terms of improvisation. I wanted it to be chamber-y in the sense that we never had to use a P.A. and we could always deal dynamically in any situation which meant playing quiet a lot of the time. It had to be balanced. I set up all these parameters and everyone was into it and doing it that way. Then we got a bunch of gigs and it just evolved.
PSF: How has bloodcount changed? The newer recordings seem more raw and improvised, is that purely a product of the on the fly recording or is it a philosophical shift in your composing?
The last seven or eight records I've done have all been live. It's more visceral that way. When you're in a studio, you have headphones and you're not hearing things the same way. When you're on a bandstand, it's right there. It's just a more natural way to record because that's how we play. Also, with Caos, there was a lot more structure in the tunes. I really liked it but it was a little more predictable about where tunes would go. There were certain areas that you knew you would get to. Whereas with bloodcount, you never know where it's going to go. No matter how many times we've played a tune, I have NO IDEA where we're going once the written music's over. And I like that. Even with the written music, everyone fucks around with it and that's nice. It's risky but it's nice when it pays off.
PSF: What got you interested in trio playing?
I always like duo and trio playing. I think I just needed to do it just to see if I could do it. And then I found out that I really like it. With Paraphrase, it's ALL improvised. Basically, I did that just to see if I could sustain something just with my playing and force myself to grow as a player and put myself in a situation like that, where I was uncomfortable and had absolutely no control.
PSF: In what ways do you compose differently for a trio?
With that band, there's no 'music,' it's all improvised. (laughs) If I were to compose, it would be different. You don't have the weight of the other horn.
PSF: How does your approach vary from trio to trio?
Big Satan is different. We play written music and there's no bass. The emphasis is still on improvisation but it is different in that sense- having that air, no bass there. It's a whole different thing.
PSF: Which people that you have worked with have had the greatest effect on you as a bandleader/composer/musician?
Julius, the few times I've worked with him. (Michael) Formanek's band. Mark Helias' band. Guys who wrote really involved music, it always sort of stimulates me into some other writing areas.
PSF: How do you feel your playing has evolved?
Sure. I don't really know how. It changes a lot. Lately, I've been more involved with melody and less with textured kind of playing. But it changes. Every time I go out on tour, I react to what I've done before and try to change it a little bit. It's not a real conscious thing. Everybody wants to change a little or doesn't want to keep playing the same way. Being able to play a lot, I have the chance to kind of try different things.
PSF: Did picking up the baritone help you with your alto playing?
I don't know. (laughs) I like the baritone but I'm not sure. I really like the low register and I probably play more low register alto stuff, probably from playing the baritone. That might be possible.
PSF: Who are some of your current favorite musicians? Some of your favorite recent recordings? What are you listening to?
Hmmm... I don't listen very much. (laughs) I'm into Lutoslawski. I like Joni Mitchell. I think (Marc) Ducret is doing something really special with his trio. There's a million guys but I hardly every go out. I think Gerry Hemingway has got some interesting stuff. Baikida Carrol and Herb Robertson too.
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