Tim Berne – A Leader in the Downtown Scene

Memories of a distant past

At this stage of the game it feels like I’ve known Tim Berne (as a friend and long time fan) for a huge swath of my adult life. The story began sometime around the end of the 70’s back when we were both in our 20’s. I had my record shop (Black Swan) and produced small creative music concerts while Tim had moved to Brooklyn (after college in Oregon) and was studying with the legendary saxophonist/composer Julius Hemphill.

Back in the day we relied on letters and telephone to communicate and get things done in an era free of the ubiquitous distractions of the Internet so prevalent in today’s modern technological world. One day the phone rang and it was a guy named Tim who wanted to know if I’d buy some copies of Julius Hemphill’s solo double album Blue Boyé (recorded in 1977). I loved Julius, so I immediately said yes and took five copies. Thankfully all these years later I’ve still got an original copy of that rare and wonderful vinyl artifact in my collection (reissued 20 years later as a CD on Tim’s Screwgun imprint) as well as a first pressing of his magnificent Dogon A.D., the incredible album that also made a huge impression on a young Tim Berne.

Implementing his The Five Year Plan concept–and title of his first vinyl album on his DIY label Empire was on the near horizon. A born leader, Tim was impatient to get this music out there. The tunes began to flow–those first four albums (dating from 1979) are now available as a Screwgun CD box set titled The Empire Box.

It must have been at least another six months before that next call. “It’s Tim, remember me,” he said, “I’m the guy who sold you those Julius records awhile back, now I’ve got my own album out and was hoping you’d take a few copies.” I’m pretty sure that was in 1979 and his band (on the album) featured excellent outré players from the LA scene–Vinny Golia (who I’d already connected with to stock releases on his Ninewinds label), the legendary clarinetist, the late John Carter, and the masterful drummer Alex Cline (twin brother of Nels). So it was very easy to say yes and the story continued. With typical self-effacement he told me that he couldn’t get anyone in NYC to play with him thus the LA lineup–that cracked me up! One thing I’ve always remembered about that deal was the surprise in store for me upon opening the box of albums. Not sure that Tim remembers this, but as packing material he included a dirty old shirt that I assumed he’d discarded from his wardrobe. That also cracked me up. Dude still possesses that dry, wry and droll sense of humour nearly 40 years later–just check out his Twitter feed and Facebook posts to confirm.

So another year or so passed before the next telephone call from our man. This time it was: “Hey Ken, we’re driving up the west coast in Alex’s van (Cline) and doing small gigs along the way and it’d be cool if you could do something in Vancouver. Oh and did I mention I’m bringing this amazing new trumpet player you won’t know named Herbie Robertson that’s going to blow everyone’s mind?” They were picking up bass players along the way and for our Western Front gig (1981) we used NOW co-founder Lisle Ellis. I’ve still got an old cassette recording of that concert laying around. It was a burner and Herbie did blow minds – he was a revelation – especially when he went for broke in the sound check, haha! I remember Alex spent a couple of hours setting up his drum cage with gongs, racks and tons of percussion stuff, he barely had a chance to play most of it. The band – shall we say was excitable – and Alex swung hard. Then another two hours to break it down. That was a very special show for me (I hadn’t presented much at that time) I still have a huge framed photograph of Tim in a dashiki looking young and dashing taken by well-known Canadian artist Eric Metcalfe (aka Dr. Brute) a co-founder of the Western Front.

By February 1982 I was on my way to NYC and Brooklyn to park myself at Tim’s loft on Lawrence Street in Brooklyn for a couple of weeks. He probably thought I’d never leave, but luckily for him I did. This was the period of his Songs and Rituals in Real Time… (1981). Tim was leading a fantastic quartet with the late great Paul Motian (a rare PM sideman gig in those days) that also included Mack Goldsbury and Ed Schuller. Not long afterwards (1983), Tim’s first Soul Note (Italy) albums hit international record shops and his beautiful duo with Bill Frisell was released on Empire. Things were beginning to happen for Tim Berne.

Toward the end of my NYC visit the sad news that Thelonious Monk had died was broadcast on the television. What was originally intended to be a “vacation” turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life-hanging out everywhere from the Mudd Club to the jazz clubs and lofts, meeting new people and returning to Vancouver a slightly altered man in some fundamental ways. My life was forever changed.

Tim and I stayed in touch sporadically over the next two to three years and then around 1985 it was my turn to call Tim with some good news and an offer. A group of us had founded a jazz festival and my role was to curate the program for a 10-day event scheduled to take place in June for Expo ’86 (the world’s fair in Vancouver). Of course we wanted Tim to perform at that festival. Ultimately there were two lovely bands–a quartet with Hank Roberts, Alex Cline and John Rapson, and a trio with Bill Frisell and Alex Cline. Killer. It was also in that ’86/87 period that Tim’s ground-breaking Fulton Street Maul with Bill Frisell, Hank Roberts and Alex Cline (thanks to Gary Lucas) was released by Columbia (his first for a major–a short lived relationship that nonetheless spawned two excellent albums). The second album was Sanctified Dreams(1987). I was very lucky and forever thankful to be in NYC to hang for a part of that recording session–the band included Mark Dresser, Joey Baron among a first call cast of downtown’s crackerjack musicians.


LISTEN: Fulton Street Maul
During the 90’s Tim hit his stride with a series of great albums for the JMT label (Germany) while also shedding the reputation that he was “only a leader” and the sideman calls to play with the likes of Nels Cline, Vinny Golia, Drew Gress, Mark Helias, Ray Anderson, John Zorn, Michael Formanek, and others began rolling in at the onset of that decade. His most important groups through the 90’s were Caos Totale, Paraphrase and Blood Count.

Towards the end of the 90’s when JMT ran into trouble, Tim decided to get back to his DIY roots with Screwgun – a new imprint that would document his music (free from commercial concerns) with packaging that features stunning graphics by Steve Byram tying the overall aesthetic together. There are also albums on Thirsty Ear, Clean Feed (among others) and more recently and most significantly four Snakeoil albums for the renowned German label ECM–the latest is the newly released Incidentals that I’ve yet to hear. Suffice it say that Tim has an incredible discography that covers most if not all of his important bands and projects up to the present day.<

MORE ON Screwgunrecords.com  |  Tim Berne Discography

Among Tim’s many gifts is his penchant for scouting talent–an uncanny ability to sniff out fantastic young musicians in possession of unique voices–Blood Count (in the 90’s) included two such diminutive musicians from Seattle – drummer Jim Black and saxophonist Chris Speed (known to us as the kid band and on stage they were quite a sight). That was a band to be reckoned with and one of the most interesting small ensembles of the era on the NYC downtown scene.

More recently, guys like Ches Smith and Matt Mitchell have cut their teeth in Tim’s bands while veterans like Tom Rainey, Michael Formanek and Craig Taborn have been associates of his for many years. There are just too many heavyweights in Tim’s address book to list them all. Check out some of the links if you’re still with me. In particular, Ethan Iverson did this great two-part interview that can be found on his “Do the Math” blog.  Well worth reading as a Tim Berne primer.
READ INTERVIEW: Ethan Iverson with Tim Berne


One of the most amazing bands on the instrumental creative music scene in recent times has to be Snakeoil (four albums for ECM), and their second Vancouver show takes place at the Western Front on September 24. Snakeoil is Tim Berne, Oscar Noriega, Matt Mitchell and Ches Smith. These guys are monsters. Seriously.

If we have a theme for this season, it would be the strong focus on Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell. The old veteran and the young rebel – reminds of that old Muddy Waters album Fathers and Sons. Respect. OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but it works for me.

As an aside, Matt was another great musician that Tim hipped me to a few years back and he’s become one of my favourite pianists in this era. In addition to the Snakeoil show in September, Matt will perform Tim’s solo piano music Førage (album on Screwgun) on October 25 at the Western Front. The disc is a stunner and has been receiving raves all over the world.

Matt also returns in 2018 to perform with Vancouver’s Gordon Grdina and the wonderful drummer Jim Black, also at the Western Front on January 26. Tickets go on sale for both these concerts on September 6.
It’s an understatement to say that I’m looking forward to these shows. BRIGHT MOMENTS continues! See you there.

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