Friday, September 29, 2017

Interview with Tim Berne

“Pittsburgh – I haven’t been there in a long time,” Tim Berne said, midway through our conversation. To be exact , it’s been 19 years since he came to town. The band that time was Paraphrase, which featured drummer Tom Rainey and bassist Drew Gress. Despite all the years, the alto saxophonist remembered hitting his head on the low ceiling at the Decade, a long-gone bar known more for blue collar rock (The Boss stopped there after several local appearances) than for avant jazz.

Berne and I spoke in anticipation of his return to Pittsburgh this weekend for two nights at Alphabet City. Pianist Matt Mitchell of Snake Oil will be with him on Saturday, along with drummer Kate Gentile, who is also a budding composer whose music takes angular ideas from Berne’s style of writing. It can be heard on Mannequins, which features several lengthy (i.e. 12 minutes or more), multi-section pieces, as well as some brief ones. As the picture up above indicates, Mitchell has a new album under his own name, as of this weekend. Out on Pi Recordings, A Pouting Grimace places him in the midst of a large ensemble of horn players and percussionists.

Saturday’s show (with Mitchell and Gentile) has a waiting list for people wanting to attend. At press time, Sunday night’s show (where Berne and Mitchell will play solo sets and accompany poets) still had room for RSVPs. (It’s a free show!) Click here to find out more about Alphabet City, where they're playing, and how to stream it live during the show

What follows are the highlights of our conversation, in which Berne discussed how Snake Oil came together and wound up recording four albums for ECM, including the new Incidentals, as well as the way he approaches compositions.

Didn’t you just play the Newport Jazz Festival?

Yeah. It was my first time as a leader. I played there with the Bad Plus in an Ornette Coleman Science Fiction [album tribute] a year ago.

How did Snake Oil go over?

It was great. It was a lot of fun. Last year was a little weird, being on the big stage at noon.  This was a blast. We played a smaller venue. We played at noon but there were a lot of people. It seemed like I ran into everybody who was there afterwards. And the sound was good.

Isn’t Matt Mitchell that guy who bought sheet music from you years before you started playing together?

He wrote me a letter which I found the other day, amazingly. He was in college at Eastman. I think he was getting his masters. He was in his early 20s and he asked me for two scores, I think, of two of the longest tunes I ever did. At the time I didn’t really do scores because I did everything by hand so I just did parts. No one ever asked me for scores. It was one of the first times. So I was determined to fulfill it.

It meant going through stacks of music looking for these parts. And then sending him 40 pages of music, probably more. And then I remember calling him and I said, “I’ll figure something out.” I sent it to him and I never heard from him again. And apparently he lived in New York for a year. He was in Philadelphia for a year, then he moved to New York, but he never talked to me. I said, “Man, we could’ve been playing!” He said, “No, I would’ve driven you crazy.”  So whatever that meant, he kept his distance and I met him 10 years later maybe. Then the second we played I said, “Do you want to start a band?” And that’s how Snake Oil started.

After Science Friction [his group with Craig Taborn, Tom Rainey and Marc Ducret], I got bummed about [how] every time a band got rolling, everyone would get super busy. We’d never rehearse and it became exactly what I didn’t want it to become. So I stopped doing bands for a while I started doing improv stuff and [playing as a] sideman. That went on for probably from Hard Cell [with Taborn and Rainey] for a good four or five years. Then all of a sudden I met Matt and instantly wanted to start a band.

What did you like about his playing?

Well, for one thing he could read anything I wrote, which was interesting. For a piano player that was pretty unusual. But also he was enthusiastic. He was ready to throw down. And Ches {Smith, percussion] and Oscar [Noreiga, bass clarinet and clarinet] too - they were into rehearsing and working on complicated shit. That’s kind of how Bloodcount started too. That was the premise - I wanted to rehearse a lot.

Now it’s a little harder but that attitude is still there. So I think it’ll keep going as long as there are some gigs to get. We’ve been lucky we’ve done a lot of records in the last few years. That helps keep a band together.

When you write out music, do you notate it fully with time signatures or is it a little more rough than that?

I put time signatures in. Sometimes it’s arbitrary.  It makes it easier to read. People like Matt and Ches are more rhythmically sophisticated than I am. They might have wanted to write it differently in terms of how it sounds metrically, but I try to write things so they’re easier to digest and the clearest way to write it.

Ultimately, it’s more about phrasing anyway. You have to be able to hear these phrases, how I phrase them. Then the accents and the way things land  kind of determine rhythmically what it sounds like more so than the bars and the metric stuff. Just because it’s a five bar doesn’t mean we’re playing in five. It just means I’m just accommodating the way I wrote. I would say the metric thing is overrated in our music. It’s more about the phrasing. And momemtum.

Do you put the music in front of them at rehearsal for the first time?

I always give them the music beforehand. It’s all notated accurately and then most of the time, they learn it at home and then that 5% which involves sort of idiosyncratic phrasing, they’ll get it right away when they hear me play. In the old days it might have taken a little longer. There’s stuff that goes across the bar in weird ways. Once you get used to my language then it’s pretty consistently weird in an understandable way. It’s kind of second nature to me so I don’t know what it’s like to encounter it for the first time.

What instrument do you compose on?

Piano, mostly. 90% of the time. Sometimes I’ll make outlines. I’ll be sitting on a train and I’ll outline a piece- just the shape for something. So when I start writing I’ll have a specific thing in mind so I can get started. So I’m not sitting there thinking, “What do I do, what do I do?”

Sideshow [from Snake Oil’s new Incidentals that was a long one [it’s a 26-minute track].

That was part of an hour long piece. We used to play that and then the piece on You’ve Been Watching Me [“Small World in a Small Town”], a 25 minute tune on there. They were part of one thing and I split them up at the recording. I didn’t want to make a record with just one long piece. I wanted to have some different stuff on there. So we just did it at the session. I said, “Let’s just stop here. We’ll start the other one here. We’ll do them as two separate pieces.”

When you’re writing them, do you have a sense of how long they might be?

I do know they’re going to be really long. I write them in sections and I just keep adding sections. Eventually I say oh yeah this is going to be an hour. We used to play [both of those pieces] as a whole set. Lately things have been getting shorter. Partially I react to what I’ve been doing. I like to change it once in a while and do something that’s hard for me to do, like write a short tune. It’s also a function of not having a ton of time to write. So I might write a bunch of little things and then develop them over time. Sometimes they become little suites or they change or I play a couple of them together. This tour we’ve got a lot of new music so I’m waiting to see how it evolves.

When you come here you’re doing new stuff?

I’m doing all new stuff but some of the same music with Snake Oil. I didn’t write music for this group. It’s music that no one has heard because none of it’s been recorded.

When you played at Winter Jazzfest in 2016 [with Mitchell, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist John Hebert, drummer Dan Weiss] and it was called…


Did you play that piece that night?

No. And that was the only gig we ever did. It’s hard to get work, hard enough to get gigs for Snake Oil and we’ve got four or five records out.

How long has Snake Oil been around?

I think it was 2009 our first gig, possibly. So it’s bordering on… it’s probably the longest band I ever had, probably longer than Bloodcount. I’m not sure if we’ve worked as much but in terms of recorded stuff, it’s getting there. We have a lot of material. Somehow I have to do something.

Is Ryan [Ferreira, guitar] still with you?

He’s on the records but I can’t afford it. He lives in Seattle. When I write a ton of new music it’s kind of impractical. He’s very content to get inside the sound. If he was soloist player, it wouldn’t really work. Same with [David] Torn [the guitarist who produces most of Berne’s recent work and has used him in his band. Torn also cameos on Incidentals.] When David takes a solo, it doesn’t sound like he’s taking a solo. So that’s the kind of people I’m attracted to in terms of guitar players: people who are not looking to get too much attention all the time.

You don’t use bass players that much in your work, and when you do it seems like you don’t think of it as something that just keeps the music grounded.

That got started with Bloodcount. I talked to [bassist Michael] Formanek about that before we started the band.  I said I want this thing to be more collective sounding. I’m not really into having a rhythm section-type situation where the bass player and the drummer kind of hook it up and the other guys solo. I like it when the whole thing is kind of a mess. And Mike was all really up for that. He played really fucking weird and that’s what made it happen for me. He definitely didn’t play like a bass player.

One of the reasons I don’t use bass a lot is it frees up the drums timbrally, and in a lot of other ways. I like the fact that it’s interesting. There are some nice spaces and also they can fill up spaces that were filled. You can go chamber-lly or you can hit pretty hard. Now with the vibes [which Ches Smith plays in Snake Oil], it’s totally nuts. I couldn’t have predicted that but that ended up being cool.

Who decided whether Ches is going to move from drums to vibes?

It’s all him. He learns all the music on vibes and he makes these choices in the moment. He never does it the same way on a given tune. The record is probably the first time he did it that way. He’ll just jump up and start playing vibes. I never say anything. I don’t think I’ve ever said, “Could you play drums here instead?” But it’s great. I love it. I never would have guessed I’d like the vibes but it ended up being really cool.

Ches is the kind of guy where, I’ll say, “Hey, have you ever played banjo,” and he’d go, “Aw, man, I can’t play banjo.” Then the next day, he’d say, “Hey, can you show me some banjo parts?” Then next thing you know, he’d be playing banjo on the gig. And that’s what he’s like.

Or the tympani – we had a tympani on the first record and we’ve been using it quite a bit.

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