Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, saxophonist Tim Berne had led the bands Bloodcount and Caos Totale, as well as other groups featuring a pool of players like Bill Frisell, Hank Roberts, Tom Rainey, Michael Formanek, Chris Speed, Jim Black, Bobby Previte, Joey Baron and others. As the 20th century drew to a close, though, he began a new creative relationship that launched an entirely new era of his work.
In 1996, he’d recorded a live album, I Think They Liked It, Honey, with a trio he called Big Satan, featuring Marc Ducret on guitar and Rainey on drums. He was also working with Bloodcount and another trio, Paraphrase, though. A couple of years later, he connected with keyboardist Craig Taborn, who lived in his Brooklyn neighborhood. They got together with Rainey and quickly developed a sound based on electronics, clattering rhythm, and extremely long, winding saxophone melodies that rarely resolved in any conventional sense. The band made its debut with The Shell Game, a studio album produced by David Torn that was released in March 2001 as part of the Thirsty Ear label’s Blue Series.
The Shell Game contains just four tracks, two of which are more than 20 minutes long. It kicks off with “Hard Cell (for Tom),” which is built around a long, percussive yet still winding riff, which uncoils over a strong backbeat for two minutes, before the drums fall away and the whole thing gets atmospheric and atemporal. Taborn goes into a cloudy zone reminiscent of Keith Jarrett‘s work with Miles Davis in 1971, while Berne wanders around, nursing phrases like grudges, and Rainey taps and thunks the kit in a punctuative manner, emphasizing elements of what the other two are doing without attempting to drive them anywhere specific. The melody returns by the end, but the beat never does.
“Twisted/Straight Jacket” begins with long, fierce wavering tones from Berne over a bed of gentle, cosmic electric piano from Taborn and persistent tapping from Rainey. As before, this lasts a little over two minutes, then the saxophonist embarks on a lengthy, somewhat meandering solo that has a linear structure punctuated by occasional long whistling notes. Around seven minutes in (this is a 21-minute piece), Taborn begins adding cybernetic fart noises to his haunted-house organ chords. Eventually, he winds up in a zone that might not be full-on prog rock (the melancholy, Pink Floyd/Van der Graaf Generator version, not the manic Yes/ELP version), but it’s only a step or two away. By the halfway mark, all three men are soloing at once, and yet it still somehow holds together.
The Shell Game ends with “Thin Ice,” which runs just short of a half hour. Initially, Taborn is on his own, setting up what could be a loop and deploying deep, almost underwater bass rumbles periodically. As he did on “Twisted/Straight Jacket,” Berne comes in whistling at the very top of the alto’s range, sounding like a kettle, or like he’s removed the mouthpiece from the horn entirely, as Sonny Rollins once did on “East Broadway Run Down.” His ability to relentlessly chew on a small melodic figure until it becomes a mind-obliterating mantra is on full display here, and when Taborn sets up a simple four-note figure behind him the hypnotic feel only becomes stronger. The piece is such a journey, mapping it could take another 1000 words; suffice it to say that when it’s over, you’ll look up and start questioning whether the world’s really changed as much as it seems to have done, or if it’s just you.
Hard Cell would continue until 2005 or so, but as early as 2001 Berne was already bringing Ducret on board and calling the new group Science Friction. The quartet recorded a studio album in 2001, and a double live CD, The Sublime And, in 2003. Big Satan continued for a few more years as well; their final release was a double disc recorded in 2006.
Berne unearthed a recording of the first-ever Hard Cell gig recently, and released it this month as Sensitive. (Get it on Bandcamp.) It features versions of “Twisted,” “Heavy Mental,” and “Thin Ice,” the latter lasting an astonishing 39 minutes. The energy level is absolutely blistering throughout, and you can hear the sound of a group feeling each other out and coming together, becoming more than the sum of their parts in the way the greatest bands do. It’s an essential addition to the Hard Cell corpus, which also includes Feign, Electric and Acoustic Live, and The Cosmos. But it all started 20 years ago with The Shell Game, an album that opened up a whole new world for Tim Berne, and listeners.
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