Tim Berne

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I first heard Tim Berne on a John Zorn album – Spy Vs. Spy, from 1989, where the two of them, plus Mark Dresser on bass and Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher on drums, play 17 Ornette Coleman tunes in 40 minutes. It’s one of the most intense records you’ll ever hear in your life. They play almost all the tunes at hardcore punk speed, and the two drummers are delivering blast beats like they’re auditioning for Napalm Death. Some people love it, and some people fucking hate it. I’m in the former category. Anyway, Berne’s own music doesn’t always have that same punk rock aggression, but it’s definitely intense and can get very loud.

He’s originally from upstate New York, but has been based in Brooklyn for basically his entire professional career, which started in the 1970s when he was studying with Julius Hemphill. Hemphill is Berne’s single biggest influence, as you’ll hear in this interview.

Berne is very independent; he’s started two different independent labels to put out his own music – first Empire, which he used to make five albums in the late 70s, and later Screwgun, which continues to this day. He was signed to Columbia for a couple of years, though, and has made a bunch of records for ECM with his current primary band, Snakeoil. They’ve been together for about a decade.

Berne’s bands tend to have great names – he’s led Hard Cell, Caos Totale, Science Friction, Bloodcount, and Big Satan, among others. He’s also currently a member of Broken Shadows, a quartet with Chris Speed on tenor sax, Reid Anderson on bass, and Dave King on drums. They play the music of Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden, and they have a couple of live albums you can get on Bandcamp and a studio LP that’s only available as part of a ridiculously expensive subscription box set from the Newvelle label.

This interview was recorded last Thursday, November 5, which is why I mention obsessively refreshing Twitter at the beginning – we were both waiting for election results along with everything else. Anyway, we talk about a lot of subjects – Berne has been a really influential composer, particularly among 21st century jazz players from Brooklyn, so we discuss that, but we also talk about Julius Hemphill, about his various bands and his creative relationships with Matt Mitchell and David Torn, about his approach to composing and about the depth of his catalog, and much more. I had a really good time talking to him, and I hope you’ll enjoy listening to our conversation.

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Music heard in this episode:

Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell, “Increminced” (Spiders)

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, “Moornoats” (The Deceptive 4)