Album reviews

Tim Berne and Gregg Belisle-Chi  – ‘Mars’ 

Tim Berne and Gregg Belisle-Chi- Mars 
(Intakt CD 374. Album Review by Sam Norris)

Mars is the latest brainchild of veteran avant-garde alto saxophonist Tim Berne, released on the always impressive and boundary-pushing Swiss label Intakt Records. Berne’s career has been characterised by the relentless originality of both his own alto playing and the groups that he leads, prompting the New York Times to remark that ‘few musicians working in or around jazz over the last 30 years have developed an idiomatic signature more distinctive than Tim Berne’. He is perhaps best known for his quartet Snakeoil, whose 2012 album on ECM was noted for its illusory blurring of the boundary between improvised and written material.  

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Mars finds the altoist in a more intimate setting, supported by relatively less well-known guitarist Gregg Belisle-Chi, originally from Washington state, and now based in Brooklyn. The duo work their way through a set of 12 of Berne’s imaginative yet concise compositions, none much longer than five minutes. The brevity of the tunes is no barrier to exploration, however, with tracks such as ‘Rose Bowl Charade’ seeing the pair improvise tantalisingly around the edges of Berne’s esoteric melody before converging upon it at completely unexpected moments. ‘Microtuna’ is another highlight; the pair build in intensity throughout its frenetic melody, Belisle-Chi’s acoustic guitar imitating Berne a fraction after the altoist plays his phrase. Belisle-Chi continues this complex polyphony during an incendiary improvised passage from Berne, characterised by his typically expressive upper register and colourful intonation. 

The opening of ‘Rabbit Girl’ is almost tonal but this is quickly obscured by some left-of-centre note choices from Berne, who opens the floodgates into more chromatic territory. Belisle-Chi deserves an honourable mention here, as he does throughout, for his consistently creative counterpoint to Berne’s highly idiomatic improvising. He is the perfect foil to the altoist rhythmically and harmonically, as comfortable descending into the improvisational rabbit-hole as he is gradually developing one of Berne’s complex motifs over the course of a song – see the short-but-sweet ‘Giant Squids’. Another gem is ‘Dark Shadows’, an almost contemporary classical-sounding piece prefaced by a solo passage from Berne, his alto taking on an airy timbre reminiscent of the late Lee Konitz. 

This album is challenging to sum up in words as it needs repeated listens to fully grasp the intensely personal musical language Berne and Belisle-Chi have developed as a duo. They move seamlessly between written material and improvised passages, referencing and manipulating motifs to create constantly shifting moods. Mars’s producer David Torn describes the record as ‘boomeranging-thru-perfectly-formless-to-perfect-form’- it achieves an ideal balance between these two extremes, visiting and lavishing every shade in between. 

LINK: Mars on Intakt’s Bandcamp site

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