Snaking around the sounds

Tim Berne and his jazz quintet perform at Levontin 7.

May 4, 2016 16:02
4 minute read.
Tim Berne

Tim Berne and his jazz quintet. (photo credit: WES ORSHOSKI)

Tim Berne tends to take an alternative approach to his craft.

That is crystal clear from his hefty recording output as leader or co-leader, which exceeds 50, not to mention daring outings with likeminded musicians such as bassist Mark Helias, late saxophonist Julius Hemphill, guitarist David Torn and reedman, record producer and radical music pioneer John Zorn.

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The 61-year-old American jazz saxophonist, who will front his Snakeoil quintet at a couple of gigs at Levontin 7 on Monday (8 p.m. and 10 p.m.), also took an unusual route to fathoming the intricacies of his chosen art form.

Most of the musicians one encounters talk about plonking around on a keyboard at the age of three or four before eventually taking up the piano seriously or banging away on pots and pans in the kitchen as an infant precursor to their eventual blossoming into a bona fide drummer or percussionist. But Berne simply got into the requisite grooves by listening to records and going to gigs. That’s typical of the man who, for the past four or so decades, has been at the forefront of envelope-pushing jazzy endeavor.

“Yeah, I was just a fan, and I started playing when I was around 19,” he says.

That is not only a late entry into the sphere of hands-on music making, but it was also a default eventuality rather than the result of determined aspiration.

“I was really just into going to all sorts of concerts and listening to all kinds of jazz and soul music and stuff like that,” he continues. “I actually had a freak accident and hurt my knee when I was playing basketball.”

Although he was down in the dumps over his temporary incapacitation, the imposed immobility turned out to be a wonderful life changer for Berne.

“I didn’t have anything to do, and someone was selling a saxophone for $100,” he recalls. “I bought it and just started messing around with it.”

That was followed by a relocation from Berne’s hometown of Syracuse, in Upstate New York, to the Big Apple – the epicenter of global jazz creation. He gained a degree in education and considered becoming a teacher, but that quickly changed and Berne began making serious inroads into mastering his recently acquired wind instrument.

He took some lessons with various established players of improvisational music, but his tutors all tended towards the freer end of the jazz spectrum.

“I studied with people like Julius Hemphill and Anthony Braxton,” says Berne, adding that, despite eschewing the recognized institutions in the field, he was also interested in learning about the more formal aspects of the craft.

“I took some classical saxophone classes, and I learned a lot about notation and different things, but I didn’t go to formal music class. When I was in college I just practiced and took saxophone lessons,” he says.

Basically, Berne learned as he went along, gaining a “degree” from the proverbial university of the streets.

“I just started playing with people, playing in bands, and that’s kind of how I learned the rest,” he notes. “I found myself forced to do things in certain situations, which makes you learn how to do it. I’m not sure I have a degree from the university of the streets, but I’ve definitely taken a few classes there,” he laughs.

Berne loves to take flight with his instrument, but there is a solid base at the core of his musical ethos.

“I have always been attracted to groove and funk, and I like Julius [Hemphill]’s music,” he states.

He also has a preference for sounds that don’t follow the straight and narrow.

“I am definitely interested in contrasts. If you are going to have something like that [groove], you should have some dramatic shapes so you don’t practice just one thing all the time. I am trying to get all these contrasting things to happen, so there’s some drama instead of there just being some funky tune we play and stay with for five minutes or 10 minutes. I am attracted to people who can take simple ideas and elaborate on them and kind of create a labyrinth around it. It has to have some dynamic shape,” he asserts.

Berne has certainly surrounded himself with a bunch of gents who take a similar approach to sonic creativity.

The Snakeoil fivesome, which has released four albums on prestigious German record label ECM, comprises fellow reedman Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, drummer Ches Smith and latest addition guitarist Ryan Ferreira.

All five tended to go off at musical deep ends, and Berne says he and the other band members are not going to take things easy when they hit the Levontin 7 stage.

“I’m pretty hard on myself, so I am not too worried about the audience. I think there is always one percent [of the audience] for which what we do is too much for them, but the audience is there. I think the trouble [in terms of creativity] starts when you begin listening to the audience. If you are honest about what you are doing, you won’t have too many problems,” he says.

For tickets and more information: (03) 560-5084 and

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