The scene was positively trippy. In a dimly lit chamber of centuries-old stone, cannons hanging…
Cutting edge saxophonist-composer-bandleader Tim Berne has long been known for this dense, challenging compositions that feature him playing alto over lengthy, through-composed movements, usually backed by such like-minded musicians as drummers Jim Black and Ches Smith, guitarists David Torn, Ryan Ferreira and Marc Ducret, bassists Michael Formanek and , pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega and fellow saxophonist Chris Speed. Most people call it avant-garde, though Berne has always straddled the worlds of discipline and free improvisation in his meticulously arranged music. His latest is something completely different.
Koi (Screwgun) is a collection of fairly brief, beautiful tunes composed by Berne and performed on solo acoustic guitar by Brooklyn-based guitarist Gregg Belisle-Chi. He explains the genesis of this project:
“In the summer of 2020, I was feeling pretty lost and unmotivated with music. I was practicing some, but mostly just to stay in shape. Without rehearsals or performances, it was hard for me to find a direction for myself. I would try to compose but wasn’t happy with anything. I would work on improvising, but without community or camaraderie, it was difficult for me to sustain. I was listening to WBGO one day when Tim and David Torn were being interviewed by Nate Chinen. It was a terrific segment, during which a piece from Tim’s solo saxophone record, Sacred Vowels, was played. I was drawn in completely to that recording and immediately bought the record and started learning that piece, which is called ‘Rose Colored Assive.’ So I learned it, memorized it, and posted it on Instagram. Tim saw it and was really blown away. He reached out and we connected. I learned a few more and kept posting them. Finally, Tim suggested I just transcribe the whole record. So I wrote it all out and released it as a book of scores. After that, he sent me piles of his music and suggested I do some solo guitar versions of them. I felt like it was the perfect opportunity for me to 1) connect with one of my musical heroes and 2) finally get some direction. It was a really daunting task for me. Tim’s music can be extremely dense, chaotic, dynamic, extended...something that I can’t make solo acoustic guitar do very well. So it was a matter of discovering what I could do well with Tim’s music, what qualities I could extrapolate, develop, and exploit. And the melodies and harmonies are so amazing. That’s what I wanted to highlight — the interaction between lines, the counterpoint, the rhythm.”
The opening tune, “Chance,” features a dramatic use of space, where individual notes ring out and hang in the air as the guitarist patiently waits for the resonance to die down before attack another note. “Three Whisky Exception” introduces the element of dissonance. “I recorded that improvised piece after having three day-time whiskeys (per Tim’s suggestion),” explained the Washington state native. “Tim, who was remote producing me, felt like I was being too safe or gentle with that one in particular. I think he wanted me to just unleash...so it was really an exercise in reckless abandon.”
“Trauma One” is an intricate piece that showcases some beautiful chordal melody paying by Gregg Belisle-Chi while “Huh-Brokelyn” is a brilliant counterpoint showcase. “It's such an amazing piece of music,” said the guitarist, who played a 1970s Takamine acoustic dreadnought through the recording. “It reminded me of playing Bach, like one of his Lute Suites or Inventions. And then it was about connecting and transitioning it into ‘Brokelyn,’ which I took some extreme liberties with. I really wanted the feeling of something very structured and stabled dissolving into something very free and open.”
Elsewhere on Koi, Gregg Belisle-Chi pulls off some nifty slide guitar on the lonely sounding “Middle Seat Blues.” As he explained, “I actually heard some years ago this recording of a Robert Johnson recording slowed down something like 10 or 15%…it's this amazing transformation of his music, which sounds very light and tinny, to something very deep and robust and doomy. So I detuned my guitar way down low and tried to replicate that Robert Johnson thing.” Likewise, “Starfish Blues” is imbued with a deep blue feeling, like Berne’s take on Son House’s “Death Letter” or Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground).”
Berne and longtime colleague John Zorn have been leading members of the so-called downtown music scene since the early 1980s. Indeed, they were bandmates together in Zorn’s late ‘80s band Spy vs. Spy, which reimagined the music of Ornette Coleman as hardcore-inspired miniatures. Both composer-bandleaders are also fiercely independent entrepreneurs who have run their respective labels — Berne’s Screwgun Records and Zorn’s Tzadik — since 1995. A remarkably prolific composer, the wildly eclectic and largely misunderstood Zorn may be known for such aggressive, darkly caustic projects as Pain Killer (his grindcore trio with bassist Bill Laswell and Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris) and equally intense groups like Moonchild Simulacrum and Naked City (a kind of downtown supergroup featuring Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Wayne Horvitz and Joey Baron).
But there is a sublimely lyrical side to Zorn’s musical genius, which manifests in such delightful groups as The Dreamers and The Gnosis Trio (Frisell, harpist Carol Emmanuel, vibist Kenny Wollesen) as well as on a series of mystical recordings including 2010’s In Search of the Miraculous and 2011’s At the Gates of Paradise.
Another beautiful ensemble in Zorn’s stable of artists is the acoustic guitar trio of Frisell, Julian Lage and Gyan Riley (son of minimalist composer Terry Riley), which premiered with 2019’s Nove Cantici per Francesco d’Assisi, followed by 2020’s Virtue. The third and final recording in Zorn’s trilogy inspired by figures of Christian mysticism is Teresa de Ávila (Tzadik). Named for the Carmelite nun, Spanish mystic and religious reformer, there is a decided flamenco flavor on pieces like the hypnotic “Marrano,” the minor key flourishes of “El Castillo Interior” and “El Camino” and the chops-bursting “Danza Ecstatic,” brimming with intricate unisons that might recall The Trio of John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia from the ‘70s and ‘90s. “An Embarrassment of Raptures” has a distinct Renaissance feel while “Devotion,” an uplifting, major key number with ringing harmonics, is downright sprightly. There is an element of dissonance and mystery in pieces like “Levitations” and “The Sweetness of This Excessive Pain,” but Zorn counters that edgy quality with the sublimely lyrical “Teresa” and the patient, zen-like quietude of “A Blessing of Tears.”
TWOOTHER ENVELOPE-PUSHING GEMS:
Composer Douglas J. Cuomo’s Seven Limbs (Sunnyside) finds guitar renegade Nels Cline teaming with the Aizuri Quartet on a seven-movement suite of tunes inspired by the ancient Buddhist practice called The Seven Limbs. Nels’ use of electronic looping helps create a hypnotic trance on “Rejoicing” while his single note lines dance with violins, viola and cello on the dramatic, three-part “Prostration” section. His stinging single note lines cut through the fray with edgy authority on Part 4 of “Offering.” And he takes it to the sonic shrapnel zone on the audacious skronk showcase, “Beeseeching.” Recommended for adventurous listeners only.
Current Esperanza Spalding sideman Matthew Stevens explores the intimacy of solo acoustic guitar on the Pittsburgh (Whirlwind Recordings). From the gentle but deceptively difficult counterpoint number “Ambler” to dazzling six-string showcases like “Cam Am,” “Purpose of a Machine” and the flashy “Blue Blues” to the moody, heartlandish “Foreign Ghosts” the hymn-like “Miserere,” Monkish “Northern Touch” and the string-skipping extravaganza, “Broke,” Stevens displays his rare virtuosity and integrity on this artful offering. Recorded in a pared-down setting — just him and a vintage Martin 00-17 small-body mahogany guitar with two Neumann U89 microphones and no overdubs whatsoever — Pittsburgh represents a more introspective side of the Canadian-born guitarist.