Graded on a Curve:
Tim Berne,
Fulton Street Maul

Jazz saxophonist and composer Tim Berne has been on the scene for over thirty years, a tenure that affords multiple avenues of introduction into his prolific and multifaceted discography. Many listeners made their first acquaintance with his work through one of the more unexpected major label releases of the ‘80s, the assured and warmly eclectic Fulton Street Maul.

In contrast to the stories of many great jazzmen, Tim Berne’s early background doesn’t fit the traditional mold. Tales abound of some plucky but otherwise unexceptional kid falling under an often family or church-inspired musical spell and, having picked up an instrument (usually a sax, many times hand-me-down) displaying a fair amount of aptitude and potential, only to see that talent bloom in young adulthood by extensive woodshedding in clubs, jam sessions and touring bands. This experience (along with the requisite character building frustrations and setbacks) inevitably leads to recordings, leadership roles, stardom and eventual jazz immortality. It’s a romantic scenario well-suited to the temperament of Hollywood moguls (“there’s music in this kid, ya see, and its just gotta come out!”), and while it certainly does hold a kernel or three of truth, it’s far from the only path to jazz notoriety.

For example, while Tim Berne was certainly a devoted music fan as a youth he didn’t begin playing saxophone at all until he was a college student. And he didn’t hone his skills through the standard avenue of constant touring and gigs, endlessly playing the material of others and gradually developing his own musical approach. No, to really get a handle on Berne’s arrival as a voice of dissent to the Neo-Traditionalist dominance of 1980s jazz, it’s necessary to look back a decade and appreciate the undercurrents of an era still too often defined as being polluted with fusion damaged commercial mishaps.

It’s in the 1970s that Berne began apprenticing with the late Julius Hemphill, the masterful if typically underrated saxophonist and composer whose credits include co-founding the Black Artists Group, membership in the high-profile World Saxophone Quartet, and a bunch of his own ambitious and rewarding recordings; Hemphill’s debut Dogon A.D. and its follow up Coon Bid’ness are simply two of the ‘70s best avant-garde works, combining advanced compositional ideas with the tough spirit of free jazz. Dogon A.D. was the record that put Berne, until then predominantly a rhythm and blues fan, firmly on the jazz course, mainly due to the invigorating and natural elements of R&B that appear throughout Hemphill’s aesthetic.

If the above described lore of the jazz musician makes for a dynamic story, then the reality of Berne’s formative years hits a lot closer to real life; practice, learning, listening, conversation, searching, failing, trying again, improving, practice. And while many who discovered him through Fulton Street Maul’s high-profile appearance via Columbia Records just might’ve thought he appeared out of nowhere fully formed, the reality is that Berne’s success didn’t happen overnight. Indeed, taking a cue from his mentor Hemphill, he started his own Empire label and beginning with ‘79’s The Five Year Plan issued four of his own recordings. Instead of waiting for the right moment, Berne just made his own thing happen, and if only a select few at the time were clued in to these discs and the live shows that surrounded them, there were still surefire signs of success; for one instance, veteran drummer Paul Motian joined his band on record and in performance. And his initiative paid off, for in 1983-4 the European label Soul Note released the Berne-led Ancestors and Mutant Variations to a wider audience of global jazz fans.

But Fulton Street Maul is the record that really tipped the tide in Berne’s favor. Upon listening, what first jumps out is how the saxophonist avoids immersion into any one previous stream (or “school”) of the then still young avant-garde jazz tradition. Many concurrent horn players (like the well-established David Murray or the just on the cusp of exploding Charles Gayle) were still examining the post-Fire Music model of late-Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, but on Maul Berne is only slightly informed by the energies of the blow-for-broke style. There is definitely some Ornette Coleman in his alto, but not so much as to mark him as a disciple of the master of Harmalodics, and his emphasis on composition instead of pure improvisation differs significantly from the similarly minded Anthony Braxton or for that matter even Hemphill.

Something Berne obviously gleaned from Hemphill was a love for the cello. Fulton Street Maul’s opening track “Unknown Disaster” begins with cellist Hank Roberts establishing a tough pattern halfway between cyclical and lopsided as Alex Cline skitters around his drum kit and guitarist Bill Frisell wigs out on his fret board like a dusted Robert Fripp. But where Abdul Wadud’s cello on Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. possesses an earthiness that flirts with the gutbucket (that aforementioned R&B thing), Roberts’ method feels far more shaped by the conservatory. Over a minute of “Unknown Disaster” elapses before Berne’s horn enters the fray, and when it does it’s not with a howl but instead with an unexpectedly pretty (if sturdy) melodic line. As the track develops he does take the opportunity to purge his lungs and deliver a heated tangle of a solo, but what’s just as apparent is that while complex and often abstract, Berne’s music isn’t aggressively “difficult” in execution. His work requires attention but it’s never conceived as an endurance test.

The following track “Icicles Revisited” again begins with Roberts’ forlorn cello as the other players join in and slowly redirect the tune into some spacious and loose improv that briefly recalls everything from Derek Bailey to Braxton to the Art Ensemble of Chicago in their “little instruments” mode. But then the direction changes again, Berne exploring a lightly Coleman-tinged progression while Cline goes cymbal happy, Roberts saws up a storm, and Frisell unleashes a steady and varied stream of effects.

Maybe the best comparison for the Berne newbie is John Zorn. In fact, Berne is one of the players on Zorn’s still potent Coleman tribute Spy vs Spy. I mention this because the title of track three “Miniature” was later the name of a unit consisting of Berne, Roberts and venerable drummer and Zorn cohort Joey Baron, a group that sorta examined the genre hopping sensibility of Naked City but without the grindcore and Japanese bondage pics. The track here doesn’t jump styles, instead resonating like a non-traditional rethink of those post-bop showcases where the players are given ample room to strut their improvisational bona fides. Both Roberts and Frisell shine in this context, and Cline rides through the whole thing like a champion, never once entertaining the notion of simple support.

But it’s “Federico,” a nod to the incomparable Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, which provides the album with one of its finest moments. It opens somewhat traditionally (if loosely), with Roberts’ plucking out a bass line on his instrument and Berne simulating something reminiscent of a standard opening head, but then things take a turn for the abstract, Berne’s horn fluttering and Roberts’ bowing entering into a superb dialogue. After a change of direction, Frisell steps forward, whipping out an intense and lengthy solo that should really impress listeners underwhelmed by the politeness of the guy’s recent solo work. And the rest of the band is on his wavelength the entire time, reacting to his ideas and adding their own, giving Frisell the proper platform from which to launch.

“Betsy” is Fulton Street Maul’s closing track, and while the longest it’s also the most accessible. It features extended stretches of Berne at his most melodious, his blowing slowly climbing in intensity and gathering edge, and it is here that the saxophonist’s love of rhythm and blues becomes clear, though (like Hemphill) never overstated. “Betsy” also has some nice opening atmospherics, with the use of Cline’s processed vocals being remindful of the tantric choir music of the Gyuto Monks if those noble fellows had put out a space-rock album.

Tim Berne went on to record another date for Columbia, the also very necessary Sanctified Dreams. From there he’s worked with labels like JMT, Splasc(h), Thirsty Ear and Clean Feed, as well as knocking out a slew of stuff on his own Screwgun Records. His latest is on ECM, the excellent Snakeoil. But I don’t think he’s had a record out on vinyl since ‘89’s Fractured Fairy Tales, so anyone wanting to hear the man on wax will need to scout the used bins.

But don’t worry. A few years ago I managed to upgrade my poorly mastered late-‘80s compact disc of Fulton Street Maul with a pristine LP copy for just $3.99, so the investment won’t brutalize the change-purse too badly. I mean, you can’t even buy a foot long submarine sandwich for that. And even if you could, which one would you rather consume?

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