Interview: Tim Berne + Matt Mitchell

Matt Mitchell and Tim Berne

(photo: Matt Mitchell & Tim Berne by Robert Lewis)

On Thursday June 29, pianist Matt Mitchell and composer-saxophonist Tim Berne will perform a concert in Sound It Out’s series of fifth-anniversary fundraisers for Greenwich House Music School. Apropos of that, it seems opportune to re-circulate portions of recent interviews I conducted with Matt and Tim to help promote their kaleidoscopic new album førage. Tim’s compositions have earned renown for their intensely kinetic, dizzyingly intricate quality as performed around the world by his various ensembles over the past four decades. But førage presents Matt’s ingenious arrangements for solo piano of this music, a result of the pianist – a member of Tim’s hit band Snakeoil – having explored the full range of the composer’s catalog. “No one knows my music better than Matt,” Tim says. On førage, Matt devises mash-ups of multiple compositions, improvises new angles off the music, and often slows it down to reveal heretofore hidden beauties – limpid harmonies and ruminative melodies, like dark pearls unspooled. At Greenwich House on June 29 at 7:30pm, Matt will perform a set of this solo material; then Tim will join the pianist for another full set of duo performances.

For those who don’t know his work, Tim Berne was aptly named one of New York City’s essential jazz icons by Time Out New York, while the UK’s Jazzwise magazine underscored the growing stature of his music by declaring it “suffused with genuine humanity and more than a little wisdom.” The New York Times praised Matt – who has also worked with the likes of Dave Douglas and John Hollenbeck – as “a pianist of burrowing focus and an indispensable fixture of the contemporary vanguard.” Matt’s quartet album Vista Accumulation placed in the top 20 of NPR’s 2015 Critic’s Poll, with web journal Point of Departure praising his pianism for the way it “synthesizes sounds and idioms with breathtaking ease.” The two musicians met in 2009, when Matt opened for one of the saxophonist’s bands in Philadelphia by performing an entire set of Tim’s music, the pianist having spent a year re-conceiving ensemble scores as solo vehicles. Duly knocked out by his conception and performance, Tim soon drafted the keyboardist into Snakeoil.

About the title of førage (which was released this spring via his Screwgun label), Tim says: “It refers to Matt foraging through my music to find the pieces that felt best for exploring solo – something no one else has ever done – and the way he forages through that music to find the parts that speak most to him, that inspire him as an improviser. The way Matt improvises on this record is the epitome of the melodic/thematic improvisation that I really like. No one could’ve gone into the same level of detail – Matt not only knows but also feels my music inside and out. One thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t a ‘composition record,’ per se. I’m very much a blue-collar composer, not a white-collar one. I mean, I didn’t compose a faux classical record of solo piano pieces. This is Matt’s vision seen through the prism of my compositions, and I love the way he squeezes every last drop of music out of each piece, each part – and hearing the clarity of the voices is exciting to me. I encouraged him to pick the pieces that spoke most to him, although I did hint at some of the more harmonic ballad-like material, because I love the way he plays that music.”

For his part, Matt says about these slower, more contemplative passages: “I think the lush aspect Tim’s music has been unsung, and he was keen to hear those parts where the music was ‘stretched out’ in tempo. Also, when you’re playing solo, without other players to instigate rhythms and bounce off, you have more time and space for inner exploration. Tim was totally encouraging about me arranging and playing the music the way I wanted to, morphing the material. Sometimes I play the themes explicitly; sometimes I just play around them. Having gigged so much with Snakeoil and other bands so much over the past several years, I’ve become a much better pianist than I was in 2009 – and I know Tim’s music as an insider now. But in preparing for this session, I played Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Chopin’s Etudes a lot, as well as shedding with my own etudes – dealing repeatedly with music that’s challenging conceptually and physically. That was so I could be free from too many limitations when improvising, so that I could just deal with the many ideas in my head spurred by Tim’s music.”

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