The Jazz Mann | Tim Berne’s Big Satan - Tim Berne’s Big Satan, Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Birmingham, 08/02/2018. | Review | The Jazz Mann

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Tim Berne’s Big Satan - Tim Berne’s Big Satan, Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Birmingham, 08/02/2018. Rating: 3-5 out of 5 Music which combined an almost punk like DIY spirit with extreme musical sophistication. This was the sound of a band having ‘serious fun’,consistently testing their own boundaries and parameters.

Tim Berne’s Big Satan, The Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, 08/02/2018.

This performance was the latest of a series of events featuring prominent improvising musicians hosted by Tony Dudley-Evans under the TDE Promotions banner in association with fellow Birmingham promoters Fizzle, who host regular improvised music nights at The Lamp Tavern in Digbeth.

Dudley-Evans has enjoyed a long association with New York based saxophonist Tim Berne (born 1954) who has made numerous other visits to Birmingham. Tonight’s performance re-united Berne’s Big Satan trio featuring guitarist Marc Ducret and drummer Tom Rainey, a line up that last appeared in Birmingham more than twenty years ago at the Custard Factory venue in Digbeth.

A number of tonight’s audience had been in the crowd that night too, and there was a definite air of excitement about the trio’s return with a number of well known British musicians also mingling with the fans at the intimate Hexagon. I spoke with Tim’s near namesake and fellow saxophonist Dee Byrne, who had played the same room herself in December 2017 as part of Cath Roberts’ Favourite Animals ensemble. I think I also spotted pianist Rebecca Nash and drummer Andrew Bain amongst the audience plus a number of student musicians from Birmingham Conservatoire.

Berne has been active on the New York jazz circuit since 1979 and has played with all the leading figures on the city’s Downtown jazz scene. Inspired by the music and philosophy of the late saxophonist Julius Hemphill (1940-95) his music is a mix of free improvisation and dense, knotty, tightly written compositions. As Tony Dudley-Evans explained as he introduced the trio this balance between composition and improvisation and structure and freedom is exactly what this current series of joint TDE/Fizzle promotions is seeking to explore.

The Big Satan trio first came together on the 1996 release of the album of the same name, sometimes also referred to as “I Think They Liked It, Honey”. This was followed in 2003 by “Souls Saved Hear” and the concert set “Livein Cognito” (2006).

In 2001 Berne, Rainey and Ducret became the core of the quartet Science Friction, which also included the keyboards and electronics of Craig Taborn. Again, this was an album title that became a band name, the quartet later releasing the double live set “The Sublime And” in 2003.

Berne’s career has been prolific and he has released a string of recordings with a variety of different line ups on a selection of boutique record labels including his own Screwgun imprint. An artist with something of a cult following he has recently come to the attention of a wider audience thanks to a quartet of releases on the ECM label with his Snakeoil group featuring clarinettist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith. The eponymous début from 2012 was well received and was followed by “Shadow Man” (2013), “You’ve Been Watching Me” (2015) and “Incrementals” (2017). The last two releases have seen the group expanded to a quintet with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira.

Snakeoil places a greater emphasis on composition and arrangement than some of Berne’s other projects and the production methods of ECM supremo Manfred Eicher have clearly had a considerable influence on the band’s sound. Snakeoil is arguably Berne’s most accessible project to date but this shouldn’t be taken as an indication that he is ‘mellowing out’ as he moves into his mid sixties. As the band name suggests there’s still plenty of grit and gristle about the Snakeoil sound as evidenced by their appearance at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. My review of that performance can be found among my Festival coverage here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/saturday-at-cheltenham-jazz-festival-30-04-2016/

Tonight was to be my third sighting of Berne in a live setting following that Snakeoil performance and a brief cameo at another Cheltenham Jazz Festival many years ago when Berne shambled on to the stage to deliver a thrillingly cacophonous, slash and burn alto solo as part of a genuine surprise guest appearance with Django Bates’ large ensemble Delightful Precipice. I suspect that Science Friction may have been playing elsewhere at the Festival, but I didn’t get to see them.

The word ‘uncompromising’ is often applied to Berne’s music and this was a quality that was apparent throughout tonight’s keenly anticipated performance. But as the Snakeoil gig at Cheltenham revealed Berne is far from humourless and tonight’s show included plenty of wry, sometimes surreal, wit as these three old friends bantered with themselves between tunes. The material included compositions by Berne, Ducret and Hemphill although the announcement of tune titles didn’t rate too highly on Berne’s agenda.

Berne aficionados were excited by the prospect of hearing new material from the Big Satan trio and the evening began with Ducret’s “Unquote, Don’t Quote Me” which featured the tightly entwined guitar and sax lines of the composer and Berne plus the busy, non linear flow of Rainey’s drums. Berne took the first solo, his increasingly garrulous flights of fancy including the kind of harmolodics pioneered by Ornette Coleman and filtered down through Hemphill. The saxophonist was underscored by Ducret’s dramatic, choppy chording. The guitarist’s own solo incorporated extended techniques that included scratching and hammering the fretboard in addition to making judicious use of sustain and other pedals.  The piece ended with Berne’s alto snaking sinuously, underpinned by Ducret’s textured guitar and the patter of Rainey’s hand drumming.

Berne announced the next item as a segue of tunes by Hemphill and Ducret but didn’t actually reveal the titles. The piece began with an unaccompanied drum passage from Rainey that included some inventive brush work allied to the surprisingly effective rustling of the drummer’s stick bag. When Berne and Ducret added their weight to the proceedings we enjoyed a series of typically knotty intertwined melody lines prior to a passage of unaccompanied guitar sonics from Ducret, this leading to a subsequent dialogue with Rainey. This was subsequently interrupted by the wail of Berne’s alto as the saxophonist took over for a solo incorporating over-blowing and harmolodics, this accompanied by Rainey’s mallet rumbles and Ducret’s guitar scratchings. The guitarist also made use of a metal bar on the strings as he utilised the kind of ‘glissando’ technique I had seen him deploy at my only other previous live sighting of him, a performance at Café Oto as part of a trio led by Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser at the 2013 EFG London Jazz Festival. Finally the musicians united to create a three man wall of sound on a closing theme that was almost conventional by Big Satan’s standards.

“This next piece was written by me … barely” announced Berne in a typical display of humorous self deprecation. Called “Exception From Conception”  -  or something similar, Berne tended to mumble his announcements, which were often little more than asides to the other players. In any event this was the trio at their most full on with acerbic, inflammatory alto from Berne, glissando guitar from Ducret and the unregulated thunder of Rainey’s drums coalescing to create a sound reminiscent of a swarm of angry wasps. This was music that was simultaneously frightening and invigorating, like an authentically scary horror movie, encapsulating the rather impressive blurb for this gig on the mac website which read;
“Their music thrives in the art of collision – the collision between composition and improvisation, between expectation and surprise, between grey matter and guts. Next to Big Satan, metal bands seem safe and most improv groups humourless. In other words, if jazz were an amusement park, the music of Berne, Ducret & Rainey would be the thrill ride that the big boys and girls love to take”.
I couldn’t have put it better myself.

There was no let up in the intensity in a second set that began with Ducret’s wonderfully titled “In Praise of Bad Taste”, a piece originally written for the Science Friction quartet. The French born guitarist is a fascinating figure who has been a key figure on the improvised music scenes on both sides of the Atlantic. Here his opening solo deployed a rock guitar sound filtered through an avant jazz prism, his improvisations aided by Rainey’s febrile drumming. The shaven headed Ducret is a musician who becomes totally involved in the music, throwing shapes, mouthing along with his solos and gurning like an avant garde Wilko Johnson.
Eventually Berne took over with a passage of unaccompanied alto incorporating circular breathing techniques and harsh, knotty harmolodics, these juxtaposed against an attractively melodic theme. But soon the leader’s solo became increasingly garrulous, buoyed by Ducret’s guitar atmospherics and Rainey’s busy drumming, unfettered by conventional meter. The three musicians then coalesced on a more obviously written theme to deliver music of bristling power and extreme dynamic contrasts as subtle colourations collided with moments of extreme aural violence.

A segue of Berne compositions followed with “Of Empty Hands” followed by “Perception” and “Exception” with Berne stating the opening theme and taking the first solo. Two extended, but thoroughly absorbing, drum features from Rainey featuring the eerie scraping of skins seemed to act as the links between pieces as Big Satan again demonstrated their ability to shift between moments of sublime calm to moments of musical savagery in the blink of an eye, courtesy of some particularly animated dialogues between Berne and Ducret. These evolved into a particularly garrulous closing section that saw the guitarist using the body of his instrument as a form of percussion.

The rhyming theme of Berne’s compositions persisted with the closing “Deception” which evolved from a quiet collectiveintro featuring brushed drums into Berne’s still gentle alto sax ruminations, these accompanied by Ducret’s guitar atmospherics and the patter of Rainey’s hand drums. However a suitably knotty theme soon emerged, developing into full on sonic blasting featuring the leader’s increasingly abrasive harmolodics, a highly charged dialogue between Ducret and Rainey, and a final solo from the latter. The trio then came together for an apocalyptic final section that brought several audience members to their feet.

The band needed little prompting from Tony Dudley-Evans to deliver an encore, this being Ducret’s “Satan”, essentially the trio’s signature tune, introduced by the composer’s guitar accompanied by the clatter of Rainey’s sticks on rims before the plaintive, banshee like wail of Berne’s alto sax took over to end the evening on a suitably cathartic note.

This was challenging music and even I was left feeling a little battered and bruised by the end of an intense second set. Yet no-one could deny the visceral excitement of this music which combined an almost punk like DIY spirit with extreme musical sophistication. The long honed chemistry and shared humour between the musicians was palpable – this was the sound of a band having ‘serious fun’, consistently testing their own boundaries and parameters.

Tonight’s gig encapsulated the TDE/Fizzle ethos superbly and was the second date of an ongoing European tour that also took in London’s Vortex Jazz Club.

Tim Berne’s Big Satan, Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Birmingham, 08/02/2018.

Tim Berne’s Big Satan

Monday, February 12, 2018

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Live Review

3-5 out of 5

Tim Berne’s Big Satan, Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Birmingham, 08/02/2018.
Photography: Photograph by Pam Mann.

Music which combined an almost punk like DIY spirit with extreme musical sophistication. This was the sound of a band having ‘serious fun’,consistently testing their own boundaries and parameters.

Tim Berne’s Big Satan, The Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, 08/02/2018.

This performance was the latest of a series of events featuring prominent improvising musicians hosted by Tony Dudley-Evans under the TDE Promotions banner in association with fellow Birmingham promoters Fizzle, who host regular improvised music nights at The Lamp Tavern in Digbeth.

Dudley-Evans has enjoyed a long association with New York based saxophonist Tim Berne (born 1954) who has made numerous other visits to Birmingham. Tonight’s performance re-united Berne’s Big Satan trio featuring guitarist Marc Ducret and drummer Tom Rainey, a line up that last appeared in Birmingham more than twenty years ago at the Custard Factory venue in Digbeth.

A number of tonight’s audience had been in the crowd that night too, and there was a definite air of excitement about the trio’s return with a number of well known British musicians also mingling with the fans at the intimate Hexagon. I spoke with Tim’s near namesake and fellow saxophonist Dee Byrne, who had played the same room herself in December 2017 as part of Cath Roberts’ Favourite Animals ensemble. I think I also spotted pianist Rebecca Nash and drummer Andrew Bain amongst the audience plus a number of student musicians from Birmingham Conservatoire.

Berne has been active on the New York jazz circuit since 1979 and has played with all the leading figures on the city’s Downtown jazz scene. Inspired by the music and philosophy of the late saxophonist Julius Hemphill (1940-95) his music is a mix of free improvisation and dense, knotty, tightly written compositions. As Tony Dudley-Evans explained as he introduced the trio this balance between composition and improvisation and structure and freedom is exactly what this current series of joint TDE/Fizzle promotions is seeking to explore.

The Big Satan trio first came together on the 1996 release of the album of the same name, sometimes also referred to as “I Think They Liked It, Honey”. This was followed in 2003 by “Souls Saved Hear” and the concert set “Livein Cognito” (2006).

In 2001 Berne, Rainey and Ducret became the core of the quartet Science Friction, which also included the keyboards and electronics of Craig Taborn. Again, this was an album title that became a band name, the quartet later releasing the double live set “The Sublime And” in 2003.

Berne’s career has been prolific and he has released a string of recordings with a variety of different line ups on a selection of boutique record labels including his own Screwgun imprint. An artist with something of a cult following he has recently come to the attention of a wider audience thanks to a quartet of releases on the ECM label with his Snakeoil group featuring clarinettist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith. The eponymous début from 2012 was well received and was followed by “Shadow Man” (2013), “You’ve Been Watching Me” (2015) and “Incrementals” (2017). The last two releases have seen the group expanded to a quintet with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira.

Snakeoil places a greater emphasis on composition and arrangement than some of Berne’s other projects and the production methods of ECM supremo Manfred Eicher have clearly had a considerable influence on the band’s sound. Snakeoil is arguably Berne’s most accessible project to date but this shouldn’t be taken as an indication that he is ‘mellowing out’ as he moves into his mid sixties. As the band name suggests there’s still plenty of grit and gristle about the Snakeoil sound as evidenced by their appearance at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. My review of that performance can be found among my Festival coverage here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/saturday-at-cheltenham-jazz-festival-30-04-2016/

Tonight was to be my third sighting of Berne in a live setting following that Snakeoil performance and a brief cameo at another Cheltenham Jazz Festival many years ago when Berne shambled on to the stage to deliver a thrillingly cacophonous, slash and burn alto solo as part of a genuine surprise guest appearance with Django Bates’ large ensemble Delightful Precipice. I suspect that Science Friction may have been playing elsewhere at the Festival, but I didn’t get to see them.

The word ‘uncompromising’ is often applied to Berne’s music and this was a quality that was apparent throughout tonight’s keenly anticipated performance. But as the Snakeoil gig at Cheltenham revealed Berne is far from humourless and tonight’s show included plenty of wry, sometimes surreal, wit as these three old friends bantered with themselves between tunes. The material included compositions by Berne, Ducret and Hemphill although the announcement of tune titles didn’t rate too highly on Berne’s agenda.

Berne aficionados were excited by the prospect of hearing new material from the Big Satan trio and the evening began with Ducret’s “Unquote, Don’t Quote Me” which featured the tightly entwined guitar and sax lines of the composer and Berne plus the busy, non linear flow of Rainey’s drums. Berne took the first solo, his increasingly garrulous flights of fancy including the kind of harmolodics pioneered by Ornette Coleman and filtered down through Hemphill. The saxophonist was underscored by Ducret’s dramatic, choppy chording. The guitarist’s own solo incorporated extended techniques that included scratching and hammering the fretboard in addition to making judicious use of sustain and other pedals.  The piece ended with Berne’s alto snaking sinuously, underpinned by Ducret’s textured guitar and the patter of Rainey’s hand drumming.

Berne announced the next item as a segue of tunes by Hemphill and Ducret but didn’t actually reveal the titles. The piece began with an unaccompanied drum passage from Rainey that included some inventive brush work allied to the surprisingly effective rustling of the drummer’s stick bag. When Berne and Ducret added their weight to the proceedings we enjoyed a series of typically knotty intertwined melody lines prior to a passage of unaccompanied guitar sonics from Ducret, this leading to a subsequent dialogue with Rainey. This was subsequently interrupted by the wail of Berne’s alto as the saxophonist took over for a solo incorporating over-blowing and harmolodics, this accompanied by Rainey’s mallet rumbles and Ducret’s guitar scratchings. The guitarist also made use of a metal bar on the strings as he utilised the kind of ‘glissando’ technique I had seen him deploy at my only other previous live sighting of him, a performance at Café Oto as part of a trio led by Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser at the 2013 EFG London Jazz Festival. Finally the musicians united to create a three man wall of sound on a closing theme that was almost conventional by Big Satan’s standards.

“This next piece was written by me … barely” announced Berne in a typical display of humorous self deprecation. Called “Exception From Conception”  -  or something similar, Berne tended to mumble his announcements, which were often little more than asides to the other players. In any event this was the trio at their most full on with acerbic, inflammatory alto from Berne, glissando guitar from Ducret and the unregulated thunder of Rainey’s drums coalescing to create a sound reminiscent of a swarm of angry wasps. This was music that was simultaneously frightening and invigorating, like an authentically scary horror movie, encapsulating the rather impressive blurb for this gig on the mac website which read;
“Their music thrives in the art of collision – the collision between composition and improvisation, between expectation and surprise, between grey matter and guts. Next to Big Satan, metal bands seem safe and most improv groups humourless. In other words, if jazz were an amusement park, the music of Berne, Ducret & Rainey would be the thrill ride that the big boys and girls love to take”.
I couldn’t have put it better myself.

There was no let up in the intensity in a second set that began with Ducret’s wonderfully titled “In Praise of Bad Taste”, a piece originally written for the Science Friction quartet. The French born guitarist is a fascinating figure who has been a key figure on the improvised music scenes on both sides of the Atlantic. Here his opening solo deployed a rock guitar sound filtered through an avant jazz prism, his improvisations aided by Rainey’s febrile drumming. The shaven headed Ducret is a musician who becomes totally involved in the music, throwing shapes, mouthing along with his solos and gurning like an avant garde Wilko Johnson.
Eventually Berne took over with a passage of unaccompanied alto incorporating circular breathing techniques and harsh, knotty harmolodics, these juxtaposed against an attractively melodic theme. But soon the leader’s solo became increasingly garrulous, buoyed by Ducret’s guitar atmospherics and Rainey’s busy drumming, unfettered by conventional meter. The three musicians then coalesced on a more obviously written theme to deliver music of bristling power and extreme dynamic contrasts as subtle colourations collided with moments of extreme aural violence.

A segue of Berne compositions followed with “Of Empty Hands” followed by “Perception” and “Exception” with Berne stating the opening theme and taking the first solo. Two extended, but thoroughly absorbing, drum features from Rainey featuring the eerie scraping of skins seemed to act as the links between pieces as Big Satan again demonstrated their ability to shift between moments of sublime calm to moments of musical savagery in the blink of an eye, courtesy of some particularly animated dialogues between Berne and Ducret. These evolved into a particularly garrulous closing section that saw the guitarist using the body of his instrument as a form of percussion.

The rhyming theme of Berne’s compositions persisted with the closing “Deception” which evolved from a quiet collectiveintro featuring brushed drums into Berne’s still gentle alto sax ruminations, these accompanied by Ducret’s guitar atmospherics and the patter of Rainey’s hand drums. However a suitably knotty theme soon emerged, developing into full on sonic blasting featuring the leader’s increasingly abrasive harmolodics, a highly charged dialogue between Ducret and Rainey, and a final solo from the latter. The trio then came together for an apocalyptic final section that brought several audience members to their feet.

The band needed little prompting from Tony Dudley-Evans to deliver an encore, this being Ducret’s “Satan”, essentially the trio’s signature tune, introduced by the composer’s guitar accompanied by the clatter of Rainey’s sticks on rims before the plaintive, banshee like wail of Berne’s alto sax took over to end the evening on a suitably cathartic note.

This was challenging music and even I was left feeling a little battered and bruised by the end of an intense second set. Yet no-one could deny the visceral excitement of this music which combined an almost punk like DIY spirit with extreme musical sophistication. The long honed chemistry and shared humour between the musicians was palpable – this was the sound of a band having ‘serious fun’, consistently testing their own boundaries and parameters.

Tonight’s gig encapsulated the TDE/Fizzle ethos superbly and was the second date of an ongoing European tour that also took in London’s Vortex Jazz Club.


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