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Larry Polansky
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the shell game
Tim Berne
The Shell Game
Thirsty Ear

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Tim Berne may eschew such earthly things as genre labels, but his latest album is clearly dominated by jazz. Jazz is one of those terms that carries a lot of weight without really meaning anything, as it encompasses the frenetic dissonance of Ornette Coleman, the smooth crooning of Duke Ellington and the fusion experiment of Miles Davis. Berne's saxophone work builds on the legacy of such legends and pushes the music into interesting new territory.

Accompanied by keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey, Berne embarks upon four tracks of relentless exploration. The first track, "Hard Cell", opens with a punchy melody reminiscent of Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch. This melody twists in upon itself until the drums take a break, as Berne's sax and Taborn's keyboards create an ever-growing spiral of tones. In an interesting move, Berne never allows this crescendo to climax; instead, he takes the music to a plateau and holds it there, trapping it in an intriguing, if unsettling, energetic limbo. This discipline is key to the music's success.

Throughout The Shell Game, Berne's playing embodies the exploratory nature of the saxophone's tone, a trademark of almost all saxophonists since John Coltrane. Unlike Coltrane, Berne chooses to coax the harsher sounds from his instrument rather than blasting them into the stratosphere -- a display of restraint that also sets Berne apart from contemporaries like John Zorn. Berne's coolness (instrumentally speaking) is mirrored in Taborn's keyboard style. In a day when most keyboardists attack their instrument a la John Medeski, Taborn's style owes far more to the keyboard work on the classic Bitches Brew. His sound is often subliminal and serves to create a subtle backdrop from which Berne's sax leaps out. This is particularly true during the centerpiece of "Twisted/Straight Jacket". Behind these two pieces lurks Rainey's pulsing rhythm. Rainey plays with an unusual style that bypasses the drummer's typical timekeeping duties and instead focuses on providing accents to the music surrounding him. While at times he pushes forward with complex polyrhythms, I find his sparse, restrained approach more engrossing.

The album is filled out with the oily melodies of "Heavy Mental" and the thirty minute odyssey "Thin Ice". The latter is remarkable because it reverses the standard structure, opening with a musical spasm and then spending the next twenty minutes retreating from that climax through low decibel horn and electronic patterns. The music on The Shell Game is some heavy stuff and will most likely scare off casual listeners. For those who enjoy a challenge, however, this is a game worth playing.

-- Ron Davies
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