Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Belated Reports on Tim Berne, Broken Social Scene, with photos


The last weekend of September was another jam-packed couple of days. I thought I'd get to it on the following Monday or Tuesday, but it wasn't happening. Part of the time was taken up by getting ready for my birthday show, which is happened on Sunday, October 8 (although my birthday is actually the day before, October 7). In case you're one of the few that hadn't seen me going on ad nauseum about it on social media, I turned 50. So Bone of Contention (my first band) reunited, as did the Smoking Pets, a fave local band from the '90s. That dispatch will come in another post, hopefully soon.

But back to last week. This entry was started before the birthday festivities, but postponed due to what could only be called self-induced mental exhaustion. I sat at the laptop but couldn't bring myself to write.

Tim Berne finally made it back to Pittsburgh! As mentioned in the previous post, he played at Alphabet City with his Snake Oil bandmate Matt Mitchell on piano and Kate Gentile on drums. The last time he came to Pittsburgh was 1998, when the trio Paraphrase played at the Decade. Prior to that show, he appeared here with Bloodcount and in a duo setting with bassist Michael Formanek. Maybe more people than me and a few friends were stoked for the saxophonist's return, but the reservations for the show filled up a few weeks prior. I heard an unconfirmed report that there was a 60-person waiting list. 


The trio's whole set consisted of new material. One sounded like it could have come from Incidentals, the most recent Snake Oil disc on ECM. Mitchell has become a strong musical partner for Berne, able to use his left hand to establish a harmonic framework to the saxophonist's complex pieces, while his right hand is completely removed, adding a complementary line to what Berne is playing. Gentile was moving constantly, playing on a closed snare, setting her sticks down and putting her hands on the skins, and even letting a sound hang in the air and decay before she continued. The video screens - which were projected behind the group (see above) and on either side so those with not-ideal seats could still catch the action -helped to reveal the nuances of Gentile's approach. 

Berne, whose tone and angular writing can make him easy to identify within a few measures, was in fine form. In the second piece of the set, he started playing short licks, embellishing them as he went, and building on what was already a tricky line. During the final piece, introduced by Berne as "Deception and Petulance," Mitchell was making the piano shake as he soloed. Gentile, who wore an excited smile during some of the set, joined in the moment with some hard, left-handed whacks on the high hat.

The standard during all the September Jazz and Poetry shows at Alphabet City had been to bring on two poets in the second set to read while the band improvised behind them. Then the group played another set. But poets Tuhin Das (a writer in residence from Bangladesh) and Tracy K. Smith (the United States poet laureate) didn't play with the Berne Trio. (The saxophonist diplomatically told me later that he didn't feel comfortable doing that part of the evening.)

The writers instead read with two locals: guitarist Eric Susoeff and conga player George Jones. The spare instrumentation worked well, complementing the words without distracting from them. However, it wasn't clear that the Berne Trio was done for the night. Susoeff and Jones stayed on stage and finished the night with a few lyrical tunes. But it just felt a tad confusing for those of us expecting to hear more from Berne, Gentile and Mitchell. 

I had been in a quandary for a week about Sunday night. Berne and Mitchell were performing solo sets while, around the corner and across a bridge in Downtown Pittsburgh, Broken Social Scene were playing at the Byham Theater. I hadn't seen the latter since about 2003, but I was tempted to see the piano and saxophone solo sets too.  After the format of Saturday night's show, it looked like I could do both.

When Berne took the stage, a water bottle was lodged in the bell of his horn. I'd seen local Ben Opie manipulate his alto this way, trapping certain tones in the instrument and Berne also used this to bend the sound into soft squeals that eventually gave way to a melody in the mid-range, along with some high interval leaps and some foghorn noises. His roughly 20-minute solo set featured a lot of sound explorations like this, though as engaging as it was, it wasn't quite as fulfilling as his compositions.



Matt Mitchell released an album earlier this year called F├śRAGE, a set of solo piano improvisations blended with compositions by Berne. His set presumably drew on that (I only bought the disc on Saturday night and heard a little between both evenings) during his nearly 30-minute performance. During most of that time (except perhaps in the above photo), he sat hunched over the keys, smiling frequently and shaking his head as if he and his instrument were having a deep conversation that continually impressed him.

The ideas came consistently, flowing from one in another during the continuous set. Broken chords floated gracefully into clusters, leading to moments were both of Mitchell's hands were at opposite ends of the piano, notes slowly decaying into the air. Mitchell has clearly spent a lot of time developing his own voice on the piano, consuming ideas from people like Berne and others. Now he sounds like no one else. It makes me think that after my initial hesitation with Fiction, his debut where he played his personal piano exercises with accompaniment by drummer Ches Smith, it might be time to reexamine it.


Then it was on to the Byham, in time to see openers Frightened Rabbit finish up their last two songs. Like the band for whom they were opening, the group had a fair number of guitars onstage (three) and several of them had keyboards set up too, switching to them during a few songs. Between the shift from acoustic jazz to the Byham being a huge theater, the sound took a little bit of aural adjustment.

The last time I saw Broken Social Scene, at least one song featured five members of the cooperative group on guitar. The effect didn't turn into a wash of electric mud, nor did it pin the audience against the wall. It actually created a rich texture of sound. BSS member Charles Spearin told me a few weeks earlier that the band would have "at least eight" people onstage by the time they came to town. Reading through my chicken scratch notes from the show, I can't find proof of how many they had total, but 9 or 10 sounds right. They began the set as a sextet, quickly adding vocalist/occasional guitarist Ariel Engle on the second song, "7/4 (Shoreline)," and gaining horn players a few more songs in, including a trombonist named Jeff who they found here in Pittsburgh.

Even though Engle sang a good deal of the set, guitarist/keyboardist Kevin Drew served as more of the ringleader for the evening. He repeatedly heaped praise on the audience, saying the band "wanted to tour America to say thank you." With some people, this might seem like a slick way to get applause from the audience, but Drew seemed to mean it. For proof, during one of the final songs, he brought the sound down low, delivering a rallying speech and asking everyone to "scream for positivity."  The primal therapy moment worked, with the whole theater erupting in a yell. After the kinds of malarkey we've seen over the last couple months, it was nice of these Canadians to bring us together.

One amazing thing about Broken Social Scene is the way the band holds things together. They're not like the New Pornographers, where one person steers the ship. (Bassist Brendan Canning sang a little too. On record, Leslie Feist and Emily Haines [of Metric] sing lead a good deal of the time.) The other group that comes to mind when seeing so many people onstage is Olivia Tremor Control. However that group - in the greatest possible way - always seems to teeter on the brink of falling apart, even while playing their elaborate teenage symphonies to God. Broken Social Scene doesn't have that chaotic element, offering instead some well-orchestrated art pop. 



No comments: