Saxophonist and composer Tim Berne’s presence looms large over the New York improv scene, and it’s not just because he stands well over six feet tall. As a leader, Berne has over 50 albums to his name, and is a constant presence on critics’ annual best-of lists. For the past decade or so, Berne has developed a deep rapport with pianist Matt Mitchell, whether in Berne’s band Snakeoil, a duo format, or with Mitchell performing solo versions of Berne’s compositions.
This weekend, Berne and Mitchell return to The Jazz Gallery in a new trio configuration with a pair of acclaimed young drummers—Kate Gentile on Friday evening and Justin Faulkner on Saturday. We caught up with Berne by phone to talk about his expectations for the new group, his band-leading philosophy, and his gradual embrace of the piano in his music.
The Jazz Gallery: You’re bringing a new trio to the Gallery this week with piano & drums. Do you feel that the group is an extension of your duo work with pianist Matt Mitchell, or is it its own new thing?
Tim Berne: As long as I’m playing with someone I know, there’s going to be some history. Matt and I have been developing this chemistry for ten years or so. But other than that, it’s definitely a new thing. The approach with drums is always going to be quite a bit different. But I’m not that smart—I don’t have a concept for how one group evolves from another. I like to set things up and see what happens.
TJG: With drums in the mix, what do you expect to be different? Do you feel that drums are stabilizing force or destabilizing force?
TB: Hopefully it will be a destabilizing force! It’s another person. I don’t see the drums as playing a role, it’s just another instrument. Sonically, it’s going to be different. But I feel more like it’s guiding a conversation. Like you’re sitting around, having coffee with someone. You have a nice thing going and all of a sudden, someone else sits down, and you have to accommodate them. Even if they don’t say anything, the dynamic will be different just because they’re there. It’s not about instruments playing roles for me—it’s not like we now have a rhythm section in the band. It’s more like we have a person in the conversation with a different dynamic range, a different kind of texture, and a different point of view.
TJG: In terms of different points of view, how do you know Kate and Justin, and how do you imagine their personalities interacting with you and Matt?
TB: I’ve played with Kate. I met her at a workshop where I was teaching. We played together then and we’ve played a couple of gigs together since then. I met Justin through Branford Marsalis. I went to hear Branford play at The Jazz Standard and we were hanging out afterward. I was talking to Justin and I got a good vibe from him. I really don’t know his playing outside of Branford’s group, and in a way, I don’t want to know. He’s a nice guy and expressed an interest in my music, and I dug what he was doing with Branford. It’s fun to try something different—it’s sort of like a blind date in a way.
Sometimes I have to wake myself up. It’s almost too easy to play with the people that I usually play with. I need to challenge myself to see if the music works in other situations, mostly so I don’t get lazy.
TJG: That’s definitely getting back to the destabilizing influence you’re looking for.
TB: Yeah [laughs]. Most people want to be stabilized, and I want to be destabilized. Sometimes I get to a point with my music where I know it’s going to work and I have to do something to mess it up. Like with my band Snakeoil, sometimes I’ll add a person, just to keep us on our toes and give us something else to react to. I can’t always do that with the writing itself. Recently we recorded with Marc Ducret and that really threw a nice wrench into things. We were playing music that we had worked on for a couple of years, and then brought in Marc for one rehearsal before the recording. It’s completely different than anything we’ve ever done. It’s not contrived—it’s the way the band operates.