It is widely known that improvisational music is not exactly popular within the larger listening audience; in short, it's not everyone's cup of tea. But for brave souls with a wider palate and patient ear, it can be exhilarating, its immediacy coming in spontaneous blasts and delicate waves. In the hands of some of contemporary music's hardest hitters in improvisation - alto saxophonist Tim Berne (Michael Formanek Quartet, John Zorn), drummer Jim Black (Endangered Blood, Laurie Anderson) and guitarist Nels Cline (Wilco, The Nels Cline Singers) -- it's major league stuff.
Recording live in late July of 2009 at John Zorn's NY Lower East Side performance venue, The Stone, BB&C blast through a improvised, Cyclone-rollercoaster set of chaotic, lyrical, ambient and rocking compositions that all seem to blend into one singularly epic, complex and beautiful piece.
On the edgy opening track, "Railroaded," Black's anxious clicking of drumsticks precede Cline and Berne joining in on the song's explosive release -- a combination of black metal guitar chords, free sax riffing and rapid fire percussion. At the beginning of The Veil's middle passages, the pace slows in a dark, methodical stage, only to give way to "The Barbarella Syndrome," when the musicians' communal No Wave and Zorn influences kick into frenetic high-gear. Berne contributed to two of Zorn's avant-garde breakthroughs: the composer's 1985 interpretation of the music of Ennio Morricone The Big Gundown, and 1998's Spy vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman.
"The Dawn of the Lawn" may sounds as if the recording was cut-up, as in Christian Marclay's experimentalist-turntable sound projects, yet it was performed live. With Cline and Black creating an industrial texture, Berne riffs Moroccan-Joujouka style. To conclude this middle portion, "Rescue Her" unfolds into one of The Veil's more standout pieces. Berne's alto lines fall between John Coltrane's early ‘60s period (such as Coltrane and A Love Supreme) and the late ‘70s NY punk-funk of James Chance/White. Cline provides a wiry rhythm, recalling Keith Levene's skeletal guitar work with PiL and The Minutemen's legendary frontman, D. Boon. The snap of Black's drums is firmly confident, pushing the beat without ever forcing it.
At a recent gig (with The Michael Formanek Quartet at The Morris Graves), I asked Berne if it was frustrating that these recordings, such as The Veil or his own Insomnia, appear so late, after-the-fact. "Nah," he said. "We play with each other all the time, so it doesn't matter, really." If you consider the prolific collective body of work of Berne, Black and Cline's, it's evident that they belong to a larger eclectic, genre-breaking, versatile and creative community of musicians who represent an exciting period in contemporary improvisational music.