Alto and baritone saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Tim Berne was born in Syracuse, NY, in 1954, and purchased his first alto saxophone while attending Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. A fan of R&B and Motown music, he was not particularly interested in jazz until he heard saxophonist Julius Hemphill's album Dogon A.D. Immediately inspired by Hemphill's ability to project R&B soulfulness in a creative jazz context, Berne traveled to New York City in 1974 and located the saxophonist. Berne took saxophone lessons from Hemphill and also became involved in managing the elder musician's rather infrequent concert appearances. A mentor-apprentice relationship evolved, providing Berne encouragement for his musical endeavors as well as lessons in how to operate independently. Hemphill, founder of the World Saxophone Quartet and a major figure in the 1970s New York loft jazz scene, died in 1995 leaving a considerable imprint on creative music but with his greatest promise unfulfilled. To this day, Berne cites Hemphill as a significant and continuing influence on his work.
In 1979, Berne founded Empire, his first record label, and released four albums over the next four years. These recordings featured a number of musicians who had — or would soon have — stellar reputations in creative jazz circles, including Paul Motian, John Carter, Olu Dara, Vinny Golia, Alex Cline, Nels Cline, and Ed Schuller. Berne's efforts attracted the interest of Italian record producer Giovanni Bonandrini, whose Soul Note label released the saxophonist's next two albums, The Ancestors in 1983 and Mutant Variations in 1984. Drummer Motian and bassist Schuller from the Empire recordings are featured on the Soul Note releases, which also introduce trumpeter Herb Robertson as a new member of the Berne coterie. Robertson first met Berne at a 1981 loft jam session and would figure prominently in many of the saxophonist's later and most successful recordings. Notably, Berne cites Mutant Variations as his first album in which compositions were written specifically for the musicians involved. Previously, he had written material without knowing exactly who would be available to record it.
With six albums as a leader to his credit, Berne then landed a major-label deal with Columbia, which released Fulton Street Maul in 1987 and Sanctified Dreams in 1988. The former album includes cellist Hank Roberts and then-ECM guitarist Bill Frisell, along with Berne and drummer Alex Cline. Sanctified Dreams features a larger ensemble with Berne joined again by Roberts and Robertson, as well as bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Joey Baron. This quintet afforded Berne the opportunity for some of his most complex and focused music to date. With Sanctified Dreams' loosening and tightening rhythms, spiky melodic lines, and attention to textural detail, Berne charted a direction that he would continue to explore even more deeply on subsequent recordings.
Not a bastion of the avant-garde, Columbia issued only two recordings and Berne's relationship with the label was over. German producer Stefan Winter then signed Berne to his JMT label and from 1989 until 1995, the saxophonist was given free rein to pursue a number of challenging projects. These resulted in two recordings by the collaborative trio Miniature, featuring Berne, Roberts, and Baron; Fractured Fairy Tales, Berne's first JMT recording as a leader; and Pace Yourself and Nice View by Tim Berne's Caos Totale. The two Caos Totale recordings, released in 1991 and 1993, featured an extended ensemble of Berne with Robertson, Dresser, trombonist Steve Swell, drummer Bobby Previte, and French guitarist Marc Ducret. (Nice View also includes British musician Django Bates on keyboards and E flat peck horn.) The Caos Totale recordings reveal a mature and self-assured Berne with an instantly identifiable saxophone style and a compositional approach moving toward extended-form pieces of extraordinary scope. Diminuitive Mysteries (Mostly Hemphill), Berne's heartfelt tribute to his friend and mentor, was also released by JMT in 1993, only two years before the gravely ill Hemphill died of a heart condition. That Hemphill was pleased by this homage remains a source of great satisfaction to Berne.
Berne's career was about to move into a new phase marked by the formation of an important new band and a second new label. In 1991, Berne had recorded a session led by bassist Michael Formanek for Formanek's Extended Animation, released the following year by Enja. In 1992, the two musicians recorded again, this time in a collaborative trio with drummer Jeff Hirshfield from the Extended Animation ensemble. The result was Loose Cannon, released by Soul Note in 1993, a recording that reveals Berne and Formanek to be a particularly compatible reeds-and-bass team. Berne became interested in leading his own trio with Formanek as the bassist, and chose Jim Black, a recent arrival to New York City from Boston, as the drummer. Berne soon decided that a quartet would serve as a better outlet for his "composing jones" and following a recommendation from Black added tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed to the group. (Speed, like Black, was originally from Seattle and studied in Boston before making the jump to New York.) Berne now had a new working quartet, which he named Bloodcount. Still under contract to JMT, the quartet headed to Paris in September 1994 and joined up with guitarist Ducret for four nights of concerts to be recorded live. In 1995, the results appeared on a trilogy of JMT CDs, Lowlife, Poisoned Minds, and Memory Select. On the CDs, the members of Bloodcount stretch out with individual and collective improvisations that are slowly drawn back into unison structures which retain Berne's skewed R&B sensibility. Extended-form compositions, now stretched to the 30- to 50-minute range, are filled with episodes of gradually escalating tension with sometimes intentionally muted, rather than explosive, resolution.
The Paris concert trilogy of recordings received considerable acclaim, but the JMT label was soon to disappear, taking Berne's recordings out of circulation. JMT had a distribution deal with Polygram, which after purchasing the label decided to shut it down. Berne's entire back catalogue of JMT recordings was deleted and much of the music he had written and performed during the early '90s was gone. "It's like being erased," he commented to the New York Times.
In characteristic fashion, Berne moved forward and established his second independent label, Screwgun, which has since become the major outlet for his work. With guerilla recording tactics, plain brown packaging, and wild and scribbly Steve Byram graphic art, the Screwgun CDs present Berne at his roughest and edgiest. Bloodcount Unwound, the label's inaugural release in 1996, is a three-CD energy blast recorded live by the core quartet (minus Ducret) at club dates in Berlin and Ann Arbor, MI. A slew of additional recordings followed during the remainder of the 1990s, including Discretion and Saturation Point by Bloodcount and Visitation Rites and Please Advise by Paraphrase, Berne's improvising trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. Berne continues to appear on other labels as well. I Think They Liked It Honey by the Big Satan trio of Berne, Ducret, and Rainey was released on Stefan Winter's Winter & Winter label in 1997; other recent CDs include Ornery People by the Berne and Formanek duo on Little Brother Records, Cause and Reflect by Berne and Hank Roberts on Level Green, and Melquiades by the Italian band Enten Eller (with Berne as guest alto saxophonist) on Splasc(h) Records. At the June 2000 Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in New York City, Berne premiered two new ensembles, both of which feature former Detroit-area keyboardist and Roscoe Mitchell collaborator Craig Taborn, along with members of Big Satan. Shell Game was released by the Hard Cell trio the following year, and 2002 and 2003 saw the release of Science Friction and The Sublime And by Berne's Science Friction quartet and Souls Saved Hear with Big Satan for Thirsty Ear. In 2005 Hard Cell: Acoustic And Electric Live and and Feign were released on Screwgun and Big Satan's Live In Cognito appeared from the label in 2006.
Over the next few years, Berne recorded new work and issued archival material on Screwgun, but also played on a number of important recordings including David Torn's Prezens and Formanek's The Rub And Spare Change (both on ECM), Drew Gress's Irrational Numbers, Hank Robertson's Real Aberration and Hugo Carvalhais's Nebulosa. He also found time to issue Buffalo Collision by Duck, a collective that also featured Roberts, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King.
2011 was a prolific year for the saxophpnist and comoser. Portugal's Clean Feed label released the large group offering Insomnia, Old And Unwise, and the duet set with bassist Bruno Chevillon. Cryptogramophone released a trio set with guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Jim Black as The Veil: Live At The Stone, and Italy's Auand label issued Intollerant by the band Mr. Rencore + Tim Berne. The saxophonist also appeared on recordings by Simon Fell and Ducret.
After signing to ECM later in the year, he formed Snakeoil with drummer Ches Smith, clarinettist Oscar Noriega and pianist Matt Mitchell. Their self-titled debut was released in 2012. Thew same year he performed on Formanek's Small Places on the same label. Shadowman, Snakeoil's sophomore effort, saw release by ECM in 2013, while Berne also appeared on albums by Gress, Salo Salomon and Smith. Snakeoil added guitarist Ryan Ferreira and returned to the studio with Torn as producer. They emerged with You've Been Watching Me, which was released by ECM in 2015.
Tim Berne is an important member of the New York City creative music community whose contributions invite comparison to those of fellow New Yorker John Zorn. Like Zorn, Berne asserts a strong and singular musical personality throughout his diverse and frequently absorbing works, he has influenced other and often younger creative improvising musicians, and he knows his way around the music business. The last attribute has been particularly useful to Berne, who has been quick to establish independent record labels if necessary to get his music recorded and released to the public. Not beholden to major-label sensibilities, Berne has been free to explore a singular and uncompromising musical path. ~ Dave Lynch