Courtesy of Time Berne
CHAT WITH TIM BERNE
Has jazz lost its way? Those that have seen better days have told tales
of how there used to be anticipation for the next Miles album. That advanced
desire seems all but removed in today's commerically perverted aristocracy.
So iconoclasts (e.g., William Parker, Ken Vandermark, Jason Moran, Dave
Douglas) are the milk of kindness. An archetype of promise is the dramatic
evolution of Tim Berne (unedited and in his own words). And although insecurities
regarding the character of modern improvised music remain, there is hope.
JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
BERNE: I wasn't that young, but I was a big fan of music and jazz. I used
to go to a million concerts. I used to drive from upstate New York to
New York for a night to hear three sets at the Vanguard and then drive
home. I became so into it, sort of by fluke, I came across a saxophone
really cheaply and decided to buy it to see if I could get involved in
a more hands on way. It wasn't enough to just be a fan.
Fans of your music are well aware of your affinity for the late Julius
Hemphill, but for those not in the know, how profound has Hemphill been
in your maturation?
I was lucky enough. I bought this record (Dogon A.D.) by accident because
I thought it looked cool and I recognized Philip Wilson's name. And then
when I heard it, it fused a lot of the things that I was listening to
because I would be listening to soul music and then on the other side,
I would be listening to some pretty extreme avant-garde jazz. It was the
first record that I heard that captured the excitement of both of those
things. There was something very raw about it. It was very soulful and
emotional, but also pretty adventurous. I didn't know much at the time,
but the writing seemed pretty original to me. He was using a cello. It
was really interesting. When I started playing, it crossed my mind that
maybe this guy was around and maybe I could take lessons. I didn't really
know where he lived. I knew he was from St. Louis, but I found out through
Anthony Braxton, who I took a lesson with, that Julius lived in Brooklyn
and he gave me his number. I had seen him, but didn't know it was him
because I had never seen a picture of him. I somehow got into a Lester
Bowie recording session and there was somebody conducting and I thought
it was Oliver Nelson (laughing) because I had never seen a picture of
him. It turned out to be Julius. He was a pretty scary guy - a really
nice guy, but big and had this really deep voice and could be pretty intimidating.
I called him and asked him if I could take lessons. What attracted me
to him was just because he was one of those guys that if someone told
him he couldn't do something, it was the first thing he tried to do. I
have a similar nature. I am always going up against authority. Julius
was one of those guys. He was a super creative guy and he inspired you
to want to be different. Most teachers will show you things that will
help you assimilate and then you decide what you want to do. With Julius,
it was more like, you might as well start figuring yourself out now. He
never discouraged me from doing things that I wasn't prepared to do. At
the same time, he wasn't overwhelming me with compliments, but he was
super positive. He took it seriously. I wasn't paying him a lot of money.
In those days, it was twenty bucks a lesson. It wasn't like he was getting
rich, but he was into it. We would spend hours together. Just the fact
that I was a big fan made him feel good at a time when not much was happening
for him or for a lot of guys. He was really generous. He was just such
a creative guy and such an interesting person. It automatically inspired
you to want to do what he was doing.
Having recorded with Vinny Golia, Roberto Miranda, and Nels and Alex Cline,
you have a familiarity with the music of Los Angeles.
I haven't been there in so long, but I know what Alex and Nels are doing
and Vinny Golia's doing. I know Jeff Gauthier is doing a lot of stuff
- promoting and starting a label and getting gigs together for people.
I learned a lot about self-sufficiency from those guys and doing your
own thing and not waiting for others. It is good to see Nels getting out
there more, outside of L.A. I learned a lot from those guys. I just haven't
played there in so long, maybe five years or something. It is vital as
anywhere else and has the same problems, no place to play, no money.
Operating your own label, Screwgun, affords you the comfort of documentation
The downside is all the busy work, but there is a big upside because you
have control over what you're doing. For me, I do it by choice. I'm not
doing it because I can't release records for other people. It brings a
certain amount of money in that I don't have to go out on the road or
go do a bunch of fifty dollar gigs to make. It gives me control over what
I'm doing. If I have a record out on Screwgun, I will sell it for the
rest of my life. Whereas, if I do a record for JMT or Columbia or Soul
Note, it is a pretty safe bet that after a year, you will never see it
again or have to look really hard to get it or have to go to my website
(www.screwgunrecords.com). That is probably the best reason for doing
it because I just got really tired of making records that I was proud
of and then some kid asks me five years later, "I heard you made
a record with this group, where is it?" And I have no idea.
It is certainly a strange phenomenon, not limited to improvised music,
but music labels consistently delete material from their catalogs, further
frustrating the artist's ability to develop a recorded legacy.
It isn't necessary all out of print, but the label is on to the new record.
A lot of these records are in print, but I defy anyone to find those records
in the stores. If you can't find them in New York or L.A., I'm pretty
sure you're not going to find them in the Mid-West. So just to have a
website where everyone can go and get my stuff forever and I notice that
every week, I sell a few Bloodcounts. There is no record that doesn't
at least move a few copies a month and that is really gratifying. The
JMT stuff, I would get so excited after I recorded it and the record came
out and then it would be just all downhill from there.
Not to mention the period during the acquisition and merger of Polygram
to Universal when JMT titles were pulled from store shelves.
Yeah, and now it is being reissued, but it is almost the same scenario
over again. It is hard to believe, which is why I bought a bunch of them
and I am selling them myself. It is bizarre.
Are you going to revisit Bloodcount?
I don't know, Fred. I thought about doing some gigs just for fun. I've
had a lot of really good bands that I have really enjoyed and then when
I move on, it just seems like it is time to move on. I don't think it
is a bad thing. My ears change. My interests change. I just get different
ideas. That instrumentation, there is only so much I could come up with.
I sort of hit the wall because we were so prolific and we were also playing
so much. I just ran out of ideas. It is tempting because, as with all
my bands, they usually get really successful after I stop doing it. It
is tempting and I love those guys. It would be fun, but I really don't
have the time just to do it for fun. You always have people coming up
to you asking, "What happened to Bloodcount?" At some point,
I am sure I will get people asking me, "Are you still doing Science
Science Friction recently recorded two releases, one on your Screwgun
label and a live double album for Thirsty Ear.
I've been playing with those guys in various combinations for a long time.
Craig, even, for two or three years because we had the trio. It was something
that was always in the back of my mind because Ducret lives in Paris,
it is not so easy to pull off. I had Marc come over. We did four gigs
and then we did the record. Essentially, I did it to make a record, but
I was also thinking in terms of the future because I am always thinking
of ways to have a relatively small group and get a big sound and with
guitar and keyboards, you can get a pretty big thing going. Recently,
I've actually been doing it with two guitarists, David Torn. I like the
electronic orchestral sound you can get. There is a certain power with
the electric stuff that appeals to me, the texture of it. Also, not having
a bass, when you want it to be there, there is a big hole, which gives
Tom a lot of room, which I think is really interesting. The sound can
be thick without having six people there. There is a certain kind of articulation
that you get on those instruments that you don't get on woodwinds. There
is a certain percussive quality that I really like. I like both albums.
I was not really trying to document the live sound. It was our last gig
on our tour. There were probably a couple of hundred people in the audience.
Why haven't you visited the left coast?
I haven't been invited recently. I would love to. To actually get out
there with a band, you have to book a tour and that is a pretty daunting
prospect. With all the other things that are going on, I just don't have
the time to do it myself. I have to pick my spots, but I love playing
out there. I love going out West to play. The guy from Monterey was at
our gig a couple of weeks ago and wanted us to go out there and play,
but unless I have a tour, it will probably be impossible. I could do it,
but my focus has been on writing and working on other things.
And the future?
I just finished this huge project in England, which involved nine musicians
and I wrote a thirty minute piece for that. If you want to hear it, it
is on the BBC website. Next year, I have another Science Friction tour,
but I am adding Herb Robertson.
Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is Wang Chunging tonight. Comments?