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.
TJG: I’d love to talk a bit more about what you can do as a bandleader to unlock new responses from everyone in the group. One thing I’ve heard you talk about in the past was a lesson you learned from Julius Hemphill about using the full range of your instrument. Have you come up with particular strategies to help the other players activate their full ranges?
TB: For me, ideally, the less I say the better. If I don’t have to say anything, then I’m in good shape. If we’re playing my music, that should say enough. And most of the people I play with are familiar with my vibe. In terms of getting a wide palette of sounds with Snakeoil, for instance, I got Ches Smith to play vibes and gongs. I wanted to put a bit of different texture in there beyond just drums.
With dynamics, I usually don’t have to say anything. I would if I felt that it was an issue. A lot of people get offended if the drums play really loud, but I kind of like that. Sometimes, you just need that visceral thing where the drummer can play louder than everybody else. I like to let them use it if they have to, if they hear it. I feel that people’s quiets are all pretty similar, but louds can be really different.
TJG: When you say different louds, is it in terms of volume, or maybe color of the loudness?
TB: It’s volume and density. Both electric guitar and drums have a higher volume than everyone else, but they each have a different density. If you hit the floor tom really loudly, that’s one thing, but if you’re playing the whole kit with a lot of cymbals, that’s another thing. Sometimes for me, someone taking over just has to happen. Like with Tony Williams’s acoustic jazz quartet, the drums can just be fucking blazing. It’s kind of cliché to blame the drummer for everything, so I try not to do that.
Sometimes, people in the band are uncomfortable or think that someone’s playing too loud. I like to let it go and work itself out. There’s a human nature element to it. People don’t respond well to being told what to do, or directed all the time. Instead of getting too hands-on as a bandleader, I’d rather get a different band. I want to be surprised by what happens. I don’t want to be the arbiter of good taste all the time. I feel that a lot of bandleaders want to know what’s going to happen and want to make sure that the music is going to be good—whatever that means. Instead, I try to create a situation that for lack of a better word is an equal partnership. I feel that I got to a point where it was too easy for me to control what’s happening, and so it was limiting in terms of what could happen in a performance. It’s everyone’s responsibility to bring something to the table besides following orders. It’s the Miles Davis school, I suppose.
TJG: How do you activate or inspire the band members to take responsibility for instigating new musical ideas?
TB: Not say anything. Let’s say we’re playing a gig and it’s not going the way that I want it to. I’m going to let it happen. It could be a bad gig, or it maybe it will go better than I thought it did. You can’t just stop everything and say that it’s my band, my taste, my ideas. When you sit down for a conversation, there’s nothing worse than talking with someone who agrees with you all the time. At a certain point, you don’t trust them. You start thinking, “Do they really agree with me or do they not want to deal with any conflict? Or do they not have any ideas?”
I give people a lot of rope. But at the same time, they’re not just doing whatever they want. They’re functioning within the framework of the music that we’re playing. In that way, my influence is already there. I don’t need to suffocate anyone. If the music isn’t working time and time again, I just have the wrong people, or they have the wrong leader, or I have to adjust the music to the band I have. When I teach at a workshop, I’ll be a lot more hands on because the students want to learn and are super malleable. I feel more like a composer, and can get a good result with the music. This just isn’t my ultimate goal as a musician. There’s nothing better than getting on stage with a band and getting totally surprised by what happens.
TJG: Can someone like Matt—who you’ve been playing with for so long—still surprise you on the bandstand without prompting?
TB: Definitely. And Ches and Oscar, too. That’s why these guys are so brilliant. With Matt, I don’t want to call him a freak, but there’s very little that he can’t do. Even with that technique, he never plays anything that’s just in his interest. He’s thinking about the band 99% of the time. I mean, we all have our moments where we want to get some attention. He’s not doing things to get ahead in the world, he’s thinking about what could be the weirdest, craziest shit that we could do. I’m going to ride that wave with Matt until it’s impossible to do it, which is like most of the people that I’ve worked with. And then when people get super busy, then you have to move on. That’s always interesting because more players are out there. But it’s not easy to create this kind of chemistry that we have in Snakeoil.
TJG: When you do give direction to a band that you’re working with, what do you tend to talk about most?
TB: There’s always the moment where you have to talk about transitions. I think people are used to taking solos and then finishing them before the next one starts. That’s not my thing. Developing these transitions and treating them more like a relay race is what I like to do.
TJG: For me, these kinds of overlapping transitions relate a lot to the practice of counterpoint. With counterpoint, you’re working with multiple melodic lines or textures that overlap to sustain momentum. I know one of the big things that you worked on with Julius Hemphill was writing two-part counterpoint, so are improvisational transitions and counterpoint related in your mind?
TB: I don’t think that kind of writing relates to the transitional stuff for me. What was important in that period was listening to Julius, listening to Roscoe Mitchell and the Art Ensemble, Cecil Taylor, you name it. In their improvisations, almost everything was a collective improvisation. Julius would write these pieces that were basically rubato collective improvisations. Like on the tunes “The Painter” and “Rites” from the album Dogon A.D., everything was collective. There were no solos. They were playing together all the way through with no instruction, I’m sure. That became normal to me. It wasn’t this solo-accompaniment texture. It was just four people playing at the same time.
These transitions are an important part of shaping collective improvisations, especially in terms of keeping the momentum. Not stopping, starting, stopping, starting. Solo ends, next one begins. The energy starts and stops, or the structure becomes predictable. I want there to be some kind of drama. It’s like in a movie or a book. If after the end of each scene or chapter they start over again, it’s kind of boring. So it’s really about creating dramatic shapes and having an element of surprise. It’s not a high concept in my opinion. It’s just reflective of the music that I listened to.
I loved Ornette Coleman and loved all kinds of jazz, but intuitively, I thought that if I’m going to make my mark, it’s going to be from my ideas, rather than being a burning saxophone player. I had to create my world for my playing to work. But my world takes from all these sources, these groups in the late sixties and early seventies. When you listen to it enough, it’s not weird. So when someone says, “Hey, let’s just improvise,” I know what that means. It’s not about taking a burning solo over the rhythm section. It gets back to the role thing that we were talking about.
I don’t like to describe things in terms of a style, like, “and then we’re going to go into this funk section, and then there will be a swing section.” Or, “give me kind of an Ed Blackwell vibe.” I’ll never describe anything that way. I think it creates limitations when people start thinking that way. That’s not the way to get the best out of people in my opinion. It’s like running a business. If your boss tells you what to do every five seconds and just yells at you, it’s not going to be that interesting, it’s not going to be that successful. If you work for a business where it’s made to feel like your business too, you respond to that—you work harder, you take more pride in what you’re doing, you care about the results more. It’s really fucking obvious, and it’s amazing how many people don’t understand that.
TJG: I feel that this gets back to what you were talking about with not wanting instruments to have defined roles, or not having conversations where everyone else agrees with you.
TB: Yeah, yeah. This isn’t an indictment of any kind of stylistic playing. This just pertains to what I’m doing. I want everyone in the band to feel like they have every option in the world. If someone starts playing swing rhythms on their own, if it happens organically, I’m all for it. If it happens because I told them to do that, and they’re going to do that every time we play the tune, I’m less interested. It’s more like I’m trying to create a place where people feel creative and have a stake in it. They’re not just hired hands. In Snakeoil, everybody is busy as shit and don’t need to take this gig to survive. But they hang in there because they know when they’re playing, it feels like it could be their band. It’s nice for me, because I don’t feel like I need to initiate all of the ideas. Most of these guys have more experience playing music than I do, so why not tap into that?
Probably one of the reasons that I’m not as known as a composer is that I don’t want any attention from the compositions. What I want to hear from people after a show is “Wow! What a band.” Not, “Hey—that Tim Berne, he’s great,” or “he writes some cool tunes.” That’s why I always give my bands names. Anything that I can do to draw people’s attention to the band, I’ll do.
TJG: I want to go back to when you spoke about not wanting to give stylistic directions to the band. You and John Zorn are about the same age, crossed paths in the scene, and work specifically with improvisers, but he can really lean into using stylistic or referential directions in his compositions.
TB: I feel that they’re just different things, different philosophies. His approach couldn’t be more different. I feel that John is a composer first and foremost. Clearly, John can improvise, and the people he hires can improvise, but I think that he’s very exacting—he gets the results that he wants. I mean, he does so much. I just saw him do the Bagatelles, which I hadn’t heard before and it was great. There’s an art to getting exactly what one wants as a composer, especially when it’s not all notated. He’s doing a lot better than I am, so clearly he knows something that I don’t know!
But again, I prefer to not get the attention. I prefer to find the right people and enjoy the ride. As long as I can do gigs and make records and have the results be exciting, then I’m cool. For me, there’s nothing better than playing in a band where everyone’s excited. I’m not sure that I have the confidence to write in such an exacting way.
TJG: I have one last question that touches on your relationship with Matt, and wanting instruments to not play a defined role. Before Matt, you worked a lot with Craig Taborn, but before Craig, you didn’t work a lot with pianists. Is this just a coincidence that the personalities you meshed with early on weren’t piano players? Or does it have something to do with what role a piano tends to play in an improvising ensemble?
TB: I played a bit with Marilyn Crispell before Craig—we did a duo record—and with Django Bates as well. But I didn’t really start working with piano seriously until 1999 with Craig. It’s no accident that it was Craig. There were very few people that I knew who I would have done it with.
I was a little afraid of the piano mentality, the kind of accompaniment that I hear people do. Earlier on when I played with piano players, they would interpret what they think that I was implying with the music and give me a context that I wasn’t actually implying. I feel like they tried to help me make sense out of what I was doing, basically. That was intimidating to me.
When I started playing with Craig, it felt to me like he was just playing an instrument. He wasn’t a piano player. He didn’t have to play a million notes, he didn’t have to play chords when I was playing. He was playing lines, and he was playing bass. He’s probably one of the best bass players that I’ve ever played with. We started off with the electric thing because I wanted the texture of the guitar with the flexibility of the keyboard. It’s like I wanted bass and guitar in one instrument and he was perfect. Then we started doing the acoustic thing, which I was a little nervous about, and it was the same thing—it was great.
Then I knew piano worked, and I started really composing for piano. I was playing with Ethan Iverson for a while—but that was kind of a different thing—and then I met Matt. When I met Matt, I knew immediately that I needed to start a band with this guy. He wasn’t copying Craig, but he had that same sensibility in terms of flexibility. And it didn’t hurt that he could basically read anything.
In terms of composing with piano, stuff sounds very different when you have somebody playing all the lines. The way the lines connect is very different than when you have guitar and saxophone. You have a different timbre, you have this glue of one person playing all of those things, and that allows the instruments to play with a different dynamic. They can give less weight to the notes, and get inside the sound of the piano. This has allowed us to sound like a bunch of different bands. But if it wasn’t Matt, it might not have happened.
The Tim Berne 3 plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, July 26, and Saturday, July 27, 2019. The group features Mr. Berne on saxophone, Matt Mitchell on piano, Kate Gentile on drums (Friday), and Justin Faulkner on drums (Saturday). Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.