Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Tim Berne, Joe Morris...and Steve Noble!!

I could have stayed at home and watched Eng-er-land football manager Steve McLaren's swan song, but nobody likes to see a dying swan. Besides, football I can take or leave these days, and there was a rather interesting looking gig happening up the road in Newcastle that I didn't really want to miss. Two visiting Americans, Tim Berne and Joe Morris, joined forces with three of the mainstays of the UK improvised music scene - Simon H Fell, Gail Brand and Steve Noble. As it was some time since I'd heard Berne, I thought it would be too good an opportunity to pass up, so I skipped the football and jumped in the car.

This band was put together by Fell as a side-project stemming from this year's edition of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which perhaps explains why they adopted the name of 'The Offshoot' for event. The Americans were here to play in a Fell-led ensemble for the festival, grappling with one of those large scale pieces in which he seeks to carve out a niche as the local Stockhausen. Before tonight's performance Berne hadn't even met more than half of the group, and although I've encountered Morris with Fell in the past, he and Berne played like men in search of the music at times. Nevertheless, the way in which the group strove towards a collective sound and kept their ears centered was very impressive.

During the first thirty minutes, enlivened only by the genius of Steve Noble's drumming, I actually thought I was listening to a dying swan on a few occasions. Once musical bonds were formed and empathies worked out however, things quickly took shape. Berne spent lengthy periods on the sidelines as a spectator, something you could never accuse him of in his own fifty minute-plus compositions. Although tentative for much of the time, it was a very assured kind of tentative-ness. He stuck to alto sax, a pity as I've always preferred his baritone, but his liquid sound and cell-like approach to phrasing was uniquely his.

Morris played with a broken finger on his plectrum hand, and a harsher critic may have surmised that he was playing with two broken hands. That would be to misunderstand his idiosyncratic complexity, though. His lines, although harmonically ambiguous and unorthodox do have a definite logic to them, like hearing be-bop refracted through a sonic prism. Never a favourite guitarist of mine, I still love his linear playing on records like Flip & Spike, and there were traces of that side of his personality on offer tonight.

Fell is a man I often used to cross paths with in my days as a promoter. All of the worst attended gigs I ever put my name to involved him, a quirk of fate which can't have anything to do with the man and his music. I remember a devastatingly brilliant gig by Premier League jazz terrorists Hession/Wilkinson/Fell at the Live Theatre in Newcastle which drew under 15 people. Priceless music, but as it was funded with Arts Council grant money it was probably a waste of taxpayers' money. As taxpayers' money is more often than not wasted, I lost little sleep.

The last gig I promoted involving Fell was with his jazz-compositions project SFQ, which also involved Brand and Noble. That was more in the post-Mingus spirit than tonight's ad hoc grouping, but on both occasions Steve Noble stole the show. His imagination is colossal, technique formidable, and presence unmistakable. Time after time he shifted the music in interesting directions, dictating the turns taken by the musical juggernaut he was apparently left to steer. Brand was for the most part on form too, playing some rasping trombone that Roswell Rudd would have been proud of.

By the second set you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a regular working band who play five nights a week. True, Berne stayed out of it a lot more than you'd expect, but discretion is always part of an improvising musician's arsenal. He played some scything alto on the closing piece, a high-speed free-jazz burnout that was worth the price of admission alone. Not quite Spy vs. Spy, but a reminder of his pedigree and class, and almost certainly less predictable!

As with Tony Levin a few weeks ago, Berne is another of those musicians I haven't seen play for quite a while, and it was noticeable how much he'd aged since the last time. Hardly an old man, he'd nevertheless filled out and showed predominant grey on what was once a dark black mane. The last time I heard him was in fact a double bill featuring two of his bands - Bloodcount and Paraphrase. Somebody I spoke to at that gig memorably said it was the best and the worst music they'd ever seen - the best being Paraphrase and the worst being Bloodcount, with the insufferable posturing of Marc Ducret. Tonight's music was harder to pin down, and the only thing I can say for sure is that Noble's contribution was inspiring.

Rather like a Berne album, it was hard-boiled, intriguing, enjoyable for long stretches but at the same time overpowering to the senses and in need of more directness. Worthwhile for sure, but if a recording were to be released of the performance would I buy it? Probably not. And what a shame for McLaren - he had a smile that could launch a ship...

1 comment:

The Ghost of Jerry Reed said...

Wow, great gig review! I've seen Morris a few times back in Boston and his playing is definitely hit or miss. I think he works best in trio or quartet forms. It's strange, just cause it's "free" or "improv" doesn't mean the guitarist NEVER has to play a "standard" chord... Too bad about McClaren getting the sack