These may be dark days in many ways, but it’s definitely a good time to be a Tim Berne fan. In February came The Fantastic Mrs. 10 (Intakt), an album featuring an expanded, explosive version of the saxophonist-composer’s long-running Snakeoil band, augmented by guitarist Marc Ducret. Then, in late April, Relative Pitch released The Coandă Effect, an album recorded last October that captures Berne live in a duo with the ever-compelling drummer Nasheet Waits. And on May 1, Berne inaugurated a new digital-only label, 9 Donkeys, with his first solo album, the intensely hypnotic Sacred Vowels, recorded at home just two weeks before. (The label also released guitarist extraordinaire/studio conjurer David Torn’s fur, a tremendous solo record – a career highlight, even; both albums are available via Bandcamp.)
The title of The Coandă Effect references a phenomenon of physics, named for Romanian inventor Henri Coandă, that aids in aerodynamic lift; the title is apt, because the record feels like a ceaseless, buoyant swirl of melodic and rhythmic energy. In this Q&A, Berne and Waits – who have both appeared in the Sound It Out series multiple times since the series was founded in 2012 – discuss the rare performance that made for the album, with Berne also talking about how The Coandă Effect relates to Sacred Vowels and a new method of melodic writing for him.
Bradley Bambarger: What was great about playing with Nasheet – and how did that come about?
Tim Berne: I’ve rarely played duo gigs with just trap drummers although I’ve done it quite often informally. Nasheet and I had only played once together at all, in an improv gig with Craig Taborn, quite a few years ago now. But we always liked hanging out, seeing each other around. He’s such a cool dude, and he’s one of my favorite drummers to hear. So, we’d bump into each other around town and say, you know, ‘We gotta play sometime…’ But it had been hard to make it happen until I got this duo gig in Brooklyn. It felt good immediately – and that doesn’t always happen. When you play a lot with someone, there’s a familiarity that can be great, but that cuts both ways. With Nasheet, that night felt really fresh, really stimulating. I like that Nasheet doesn’t play using any pre-set stylistic references. There’s no ‘swing,’ but it’s always swinging, if you know what I mean. He’s kind of like Andrew Cyrille in that way. Nasheet has an unpredictability to his playing in the best sense, with this incredible forward momentum. I felt like I could play anything with him. It was actually hard to stop playing, but I did let up and leave some space so that there would be a different texture to the music at points. His solos are just him rolling on after I stopped playing. We didn’t talk beforehand about that – those solo drum interludes in the music are him doing his thing.
BB: Tell me about the music you wrote for the gig that became The Coandă Effect.
TB: For a while now, I’ve been working on expanding my melodic vocabulary, writing a book of tuneful vignettes – I think of them as songs, really. The goal was to create a new way of playing for myself, escaping some of the melodic cul-de-sacs I had found myself in – at least to my ear. All players can get tired of themselves. I mean, it’s natural – you hear yourself all the time. In the past, I would try to evolve by changing bands, by freshening up the context for my playing. But lately, I wanted to do more than that – I wanted to change the playing itself in an organic way, to find new melodic contours to pursue. So, in doing that, I wrote a batch of tunes to play and work off of. I was thinking of how Bill Frisell plays on standards, the way he bends the melodies. He’s really the ultimate with that sort of thematic improvisation, to my mind. The solo record and the duo album with Nasheet – these are significant recordings for me, I think, because I’m exploring this new way of writing and playing. There’s also a live recording of pianist Matt Mitchell and I playing these tunes, coming out in June on 9donkeys.
BB: Did you rehearse the music with Nasheet much before the gig?
TB: No – not at all. I didn’t even give him the music beforehand. I had memorized the music, so I wasn’t playing from the page, and I didn’t even really talk to him about the tunes. I wanted him to just react in the moment. It was a conceptual thing – I didn’t want it to feel like we were just playing heads and then soloing. It’s melody-based, with the flow of the music super malleable. The rhythmic aspect of the music isn’t set, so I could play in time or out of time, faster or slower. So, it can be a lot of different things on any given night and with a given set of players. This record with Nasheet was how it was on that night with him.
BB: How did the new solo album happen so quickly? You recorded it in mid-April and released it on May 1.
TB: Sacred Vowels was a spontaneous furthering of what I had explored earlier in the duos with Nasheet and with Matt. For a month, I had been playing by myself in the house virtually every day, so it felt like as good a time to make a solo recording as there ever would be. It’s a lo-fi recording, or really more like ‘no-fi.’ I made it on my iPhone, with Torn mastering it afterward, maximizing the sound. But the room at the top of my house has a nice acoustic, and I was going for a performance more than anything. I think it captures what I sound like just playing in a room, and something as simple as that can actually be a challenge accomplish in a real studio.
BB: Back to The Coandă Effect – tell me more about the live recording.
TB: We recorded it at the Sultan Room, in Bushwick. I had played at the Sultan Room several times before: in an expanded version of Sun of Goldfinger, Torn and Ches Smith plus Ducret and bassist Devin Hoff; in a trio with Torn and drummer Dave King; a trio with King and guitarist Ryan Ferreira; and a trio with Torn and the multi-instrumentalist Aurora Nealand, visiting from New Orleans. I really like the Sultan Room. It has a good natural acoustic, with the performance space separate from the restaurant – so you don’t have any of the usual restaurant noise while you’re playing. Two guys from Minneapolis own the place. They modeled it on a place they loved back in Wisconsin that they went to as kids. They virtually replicated the original restaurant using items purchased at auction from the original restaurant. The food – Turkish food – is great, and the vibe is cool. The people are friendly and really like the music, which isn’t always the case, as you know… The vibe and the sound of a club are kind of everything for me. To go back and play at a place a lot, I really have to dig those things. The sound most of all – especially for something stark like a sax and drums duo.
One of the opportunities of making a live record is capturing the feel of playing for an audience. You’re reacting to the audience reacting, sensing what they’re feeling about your playing. So there can be a real rush – you’re performing for people. When all the stars align – the sound, the vibe, the crowd, the feel onstage – it can be a special thing. That night at the Sultan Room with Nasheet was special, and I think it comes across on the record. We used a two-track tape made by the club, engineered by Emmett Farley. I’m really glad we could get that. Then Torn – he’s such a genius – worked on the sound quite a bit, making the music really come across. I like the unusual drum sound on the record – the toms sound almost African, and the cymbals aren’t dominant. Once Torn worked his magic with the sound, Steve Byram – who has worked on so many covers for me over the years – designed the package using a series of photos I took. And Kevin Reilly at Relative Pitch was down for putting it out – I’m really happy he was so into the music. I hope other people end up digging it. And I gotta say: Nasheet is the man…
BB: What was the night like when you recorded the duo album at the Sultan Room with Tim?
Nasheet Waits: Well, the venue is cool – intimate and interesting, a kind of David Lynchian vibe. To me, it has a risqué atmosphere, which can really add to the aura of the music. The place has good food, too, on a Turkish theme, and that never hurts. There were some friends there in the crowd, and that’s always nice, too. But the night was an extemporaneous thing. Tim didn’t show me any of the music before the gig – it was just, ‘I’m going to play these tunes and you can react.’ It reminded me a little of the sort of spontaneity that Andrew Hill was interested in for his big band, though the gig with Tim took that even further. It was fun – I really liked it.
BB: How is it performing with Tim?
NW: Well, I’ve known Tim a long time – I like him as a person, especially his sense of humor, his sarcasm. As a player, he has this certain attack and drive, this feeling of energy and immediacy – so much momentum, all these ideas, a plethora of information. Because he gives you a lot to react to, it’s easy to have a musical conversation with him. I was striving to be free and react to what I was experiencing in the moment, how I was feeling it. I tried not to think about transitions and so on, just going with it and doing my thing to make the music happen on my end. Beyond the playing, I have to say that I really respect Tim’s straightforward, proactive work ethic. That’s cool to me – I mean, the man gets shit done. And he and David Torn were dedicated to making the sound as good as it could be for the record, particularly trying to make me happy with the drum sound. I really appreciate that.
BB: You had only played with Tim once before – did it feel a little speculative to be recording an extemporaneous gig?
NW: Actually, you often wish first meetings were recorded, but they rarely are. We were lucky to get this on tape – and then Tim really made it happen as an album to present to the public. As I said, the venue and the night had a kind of noir-ish vibe, and that comes back to me when I hear the record. Thinking about that now, after being cooped up for so long, it makes me want to get out and hang, have a drink after a gig and share time with some cats. We’re still stuck in for now, obviously, but people got the record at least!
Tim Berne by Bart Babinski.
Nasheet Waits by Eliseo Cardona.