As Tim Berne says in the notes to these recordings, he should definitely tidy up more often. A recent tidying session brought to light two recordings of Bloodcount, the quartet Tim led with fellow saxophonist Chris Speed, bass player Michael Formanek and drummer Jim Black, and which was often joined by guitarist Marc Ducret. These are two full recordings of concerts recorded, as Tim reports, by ‘someone, somewhere’, one with the quartet, the other with the quartet plus Ducret. The year of the recordings is given as 1997, and this is the year that Tim toured the UK with Bloodcount and Ducret under the auspices of the Arts Council’s Contemporary Music Network (CMN), so it just could be that the recordings were made in UK, possibly even in Birmingham!
The recordings, one with the title Attention Spam with the quartet, and one with Ducret added simply titled Bloodcount ‘5’, have excellent sound and show Bloodcount at its very best; indeed Tim describes them as the best examples of the band in a live situation. It’s a group that I heard quite often back in the late 90s, both on tour in the UK and at a festival in France, and I agree that these recordings are brilliant examples of Bloodcount’s live work. All the features that make the band so distinctive and creative are there: the extended pieces that truly take one on a journey through complex themes that may come at different stages in the work, the development of these themes over a strong pulse from Michael Formanek and Jim Black, the intense solos from Tim on baritone as well as alto saxophone, and from Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, the duets between the two saxophonists, the extra textures that Ducret adds to the sound of the quartet, and the very stimulating changes of direction in the music that come at various points and catch the listener by surprise. I have heard Tim use the term ‘maximalism’ to describe his music using it as a contrast to the minimalism of certain contemporary composers, such as Steve Reich,or Olafur Arnolds, and I feel that this term captures the essence of his music and the way that a given piece has a series of constantly evolving events.
Listening to these tracks (available at https://screwgunrecords.com/) having heard both Tim Berne’s earlier work on Fulton Street Maul, with Miniature and Caos Totale, and his later work with the Snakeoil group, it is interesting to reflect on how the music of Tim Berne’s groups has developed. The earlier work has many of the features of the Bloodcount recording, but there is less integration of the composition and the improvisation. The Caos Totale and Fulton Street Maul groups with players such as Bill Frisell, Herb Robertson, Bobby Previte, Joey Baron allow considerably greater space for the individual soloists. I see Bloodcount as a kind of interim group that is the forerunner of Tim’s current group Snakeoil in that the music in Bloodcount focusses much more on collective improvisation weaving in and out of the composition. We see this very clearly on the final two tracks on the Attention Spam album, Talk Dirty To Me and IRU.S. It should be mentioned that Tim has also led various other groups: the Paraphrase group which is devoted entirely to free improvisation, and the Science Friction and Sun of Goldfinger groups which create a more electronic sound. Recent duets with Mark Helias have also been largely improvised, see https://markhelias.bandcamp.com/album/not-for-the-multitudes.
In my opinion all these strands come together in Tim’s latest working group Snakeoil. For me, the greatest compliment is that in listening to Snakeoil one is frequently unsure as to whether a particular passage is composed or improvised. It all blends together in a wonderfully stimulating way. But this is not to dismiss the Bloodcount recordings; they are brilliant examples of creative music.