Three days before going into the studio to record the material for Diminutive Mysteries (Mostly Hemphill), Tim Berne was feeling a bit nervous. Understandable, considering the weight of the task at hand -- interpreting five new works by Julius Hemphill, one of the most energetic and creative composers and improvisers in the field -- but it was more than that. This was personal, for aside from the instrinsic value of his music, Hemphill has been the prime influence on Berne since the very beginning.
As Tim explains it, hearing Hemphill was the main thing that made him pick up the saxophone, "I hadn´t listened to much jazz, but then I heard Julius´album, Dogon A.D., and that completely turned me around. It captured everything I like in music. It had this Stax/R&B sensibility and it had this other wildness. It was incredible. That´s when I started playing."
Later, Berne travelled to New York, sought Hemphill out, and entered a sort-of apprenticeship with the elder musician. The "lessons" they had together lasted for hours at a time and covered everything from composition to record promotion to recording to pasting up handbills to aspects of magic and spirituality and, sometimes, even to playing the saxophone.
Now, nearly twenty years later, Berne is playing tribute to this man who was his inspiration, then his teacher, and, eventually, his friend. Thus the nervousness. Thus the importance of making sure the music comes out great.
The project, actually, has been in Berne´s head for many years. He knew he wanted to do something with Hemphill´s music, but didn´t know quite what that thing was. Then, in 1990, Tim performed on David Sanborn´s shortlived, latenight television show Night Music. Sanborn took the stage with Berne´s band and fell right in with Berne´s brand of wildness. Recognizing that they hit it off musically, the two started talking about doing a project together. But what project? The threads came together in January of ´92.
"David and I were talking and Julius came up," says Tim, "and it turned out that David had played with him in ´65 or ´66. In fact, David started out in St. Louis, and was really involved with playing with Julius, Oliver Lake and Philip Wilson. He was really into this music -- from the beginning. Anyway, he was talking about how he really dug Hemphill´s music, and that´s when the idea clicked. I´d always wanted to do the Julius thing, and having David in on it seemed like an interesting angle -- rather than just me doing it with my band."
The compositions on Diminutive Mysteries, to paraphrase Hemphill, speak for themselves: five brief "creative episodes" (the title suite), a longer piece by Berne (upon which the quinted is joined by Mark Dresser on bass and Herb Robertson on trumpet), and two older works from Hemphill´s files.
The five new pieces, commissioned by Berne for this project, were fairly skeletal when delivered. It fell upon Tim to arrange Hemphill´s work, and to the band to interpret them. This process -- the filtration of composition through the heads and horns of the performers -- is what Hemphill and Berne are all about. Berne acknowledged that fact by going at the arrangements with a certain amount of abandon.
"In the tradition of my relationship with Julius, I wanted to do something with the music. I didn´t want him to just hand it to me and let me fill in the dots. I didn´t want to just play it down and blow. So I was nervous in the sense that I would have to make some decisions even though it wasn´t my own music. On the other hand, if I was too cautious I knew the project would fail. I had to put my mark on it, and I think I did."
One way in which Berne added more edge to the project was by having himself and Sanborn set aside their altos in favor of their second horns: a baritone for Berne, and for David, a sopranino. The bari is no surprise, Berne has been playing the big horn for nearly three years, and debuted it on the last Miniature recording, I Can´t Put My Finger On It (JMT 919 045-2). But Sanborn on sopranino? It´s unreal. Julius Hemphill, commenting on David´s performance, notes that, on alto "there are bits, here and there where you hear a lick and you can say, `Yeah, that´s Sanborn.´ But on sopranino David sounds like no one. He sounds almost inhuman. It´s very exciting."
Tim agrees, "I really wanted to get away from the two alto blowout thing. This project would be perceived much differently if we had both played alto the whole time. It would have turned into some kind of saxophone bullshit thing. With the other horns, though, the colors are amazing. It´s more musical and less saxophone. And, you know, I´ve never wanted to be just a saxophone in front of a rhythm section. For me, everything has to work together. It has to be a band."
And what a band: Cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Joey Baron have become something of an institution to the Berne canon. The three together form the collective trio Miniature, and their work on Diminutive reflects years of creative interaction. Roberts has, with unorthodox technique and subtle electronics, redefined the very sound of the cello. With a near dominant role in the compositions and an uncanny ear for improvisation, the cello´s voice, more than any other on the recording, sets the tenor of the music. Baron´s affect is felt more environmentally, as an all-pervasive force with the music, like polyrhythmic, pulsing air. Baron, quite simply, is the most powerful creative drummer around, a fact that he makes evident not only here, but also on his recent JMT release, Tongue In Groove (JMT 919 056-2). Marc Ducret, also a Berne regular, is perhaps better known in his native France. Ducret is a master of textures, approaching the notes with a wide- open and unique conception of what the guitar should, does and can sound like. Ducret played on Berne´s last JMT recording, Pace Yourself (JMT 919 040-2), and released his own solo recording, News From The Front (JMT 919 046-2), just this past month.
It was Sanborn, of course, who was the mystery of the date. Indeed, for anyone who hasn´t heard him play in an in and out context before, this recording will be a fairly intense learning experience. The noises he makes and the music he plays is far way from the instrumental pop he is known for, but his skill with the compositions -- his openness and invention within the improvisations -- indicate that this music is, indeed, very important to Sanborn´s heart and ears.
"Sanborn was really into the music and into playing with the band. I want to stress this because everyone expects that because it was Sanborn that he becomes like a guest-star or something. But there wasn´t any of that. There wasn´t any kind of prima donna bullshit, there was no attitude. Working with him was just like working with any of my other bands. Just like Joey or Hank, he was really into the music. He wanted the music to work. That´s what everyone wanted." And they pulled it off.
Says Hemphill, "I was really, very pleasantly surprised by this recording. They used elements of my compositions, but, more importantly, it was truly great group improvisation. This is music of a very high caliber."
Indeed, everyone involved in the project, from Berne to Roberts to producer Stefan Winter, agrees that Diminutive Mysteries is one of those once-in-a-while outstanding successes that, in Winter´s words, makes the whole record business worthwile. Let´s hope, as Hemphill does, that this is some kind of trend, for this is indeed music of a high caliber. One of a kind.
- Gary Parker Chapin, Original
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