Tim Berne has been a leading creative force (and a fiercely independent one too) in the New York free jazz scene for over 20 years, but only familiar with the last Big Satan album (‘Souls Saved Hear’), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this performance. Then again, that’s surely half the point of free improvisation anyway and if it becomes predictable, it risks losing its impact.
There seemed to have been a slight change of plan for this performance. The last of three shows at The Vortex, it had been billed as a battle between Berne’s two trios Big Satan and Paraphrase, but actually ended up as two sets from the same combination of both groups.
As tends to be the custom with free jazz gigs (proving that even the most spontaneous music can develop its own conventions), the two sets were both extended, continuous improvisations veering between furious powerhouse grooves and lengthy periods of quiet abstraction. To my ears, the band proved far more adept at the former rather than the latter, benefiting greatly from Marc Ducret’s extraordinarily visceral guitar squall (and dexterous soloing), and Tom Rainey’s masterful drumming. Rainey really is world class, dominating the first set with his polyrhythmic explorations and colouring the second with a rich variety of timbre, playing an intriguing solo with his hands.
Acoustic bassist Drew Gress had an impressive empathy with the rest of the group, and the ability to deploy intriguing effects (bowed playing, detuning the lowest string and tapping the body of his instrument). Similarly, Ducret had a good ear for sound, frequently generating unusual noises through the use of his lead as much as his strings.
At its best, this was an instinctive and intuitive performance, veering away from the purely theoretical in favour of toe-tapping but occasionally confounding rhythms. Kurt Vonnegut has described the free improvising group as the clearest expression of the equal collective in action, and there was plenty of evidence of that ideal on display here.
Less successful were the ventures into abstraction, where Berne himself occasionally proved the weak link, relying far too heavily on forced sounds from the upper register of his saxophone, a sonic extreme that no longer sounds particularly original or provocative. This was a particular problem towards the end of the second set, which definitely outstayed its welcome, and ended with a lengthy soporific period leading into two minutes of complete silence.
Elsewhere in the set, though, Berne demonstrated the more sensitive and thoughtful side of his improvising, deploying effective descending figures and even some surprisingly lyrical and melodic lines.
Throughout the show, Stephen Byram and Jonathan Rosen provided visual stimulus with their film-work, the worst of which struck me as banal, the most interesting of which inevitably detracted my attention from the music. Byram and Rosen describe themselves somewhat pretentiously as ‘practising synaesthesiologists’ and, whilst I’m entirely open to multi-media performances involving the marriage of sound and vision, I wasn’t particularly convinced by this particular example.
On balance though, this was a powerful and mostly engaging performance, and one that seems to have proved popular with London audiences. This was one of the more polite and receptive audiences I’ve encountered recently, and the venue was packed out. This unfortunately rendered the atmosphere extremely hot and somewhat claustrophobic – but I guess that’s a small price to pay for a challenging and fascinating evening of music.