Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Berne, Tim (Bruce Timothy)
Alto and baritone saxophonist Tim Berne combines influences from avant-garde jazz, modern classical music, rhythm 'n' blues, and experimental rock. The harmonic sophistication of his composition and improvisations, honed in collaboration with like-minded musicians such as John Zorn, Vinny Golia, and Nels Cline has helped him carve a niche in the vast sea of modern jazz.
Bruce Timothy Berne was born on October 16, 1954 in Syracuse, New York. Berne’s spent his childhood listening to several types of music, but was first drawn to rhythm 'n' blues and soul music. Favorites of his during this time included Motown group Martha and the Vandellas and singers Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight.
At the age of twenty, Berne began to play the saxophone while attending Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. When he suffered an injury playing basketball, Tim was taken by the sound of the instrument and on a whim bought an alto saxophone that a fellow student was selling. His fascination with jazz began after hearing saxophonist Julius Hemphill’s 1972 album Dogon A.D.
In 1974, Berne left college and moved to New York City to pursue a career in music. In the fall of 1974, Tim briefly studied with saxophonist Anthony Braxton. who proved to be too busy to teach Berne, but suggested he study with Julius Hemphill. Over the next year, Berne studied with Hemphill, who encouraged him to start composing his own music.
During his early years in New York, Berne supported himself by working in a record store and renting out loft spaces to host his own gigs. In 1979, Berne founded the record label Empire Productions and released his debut album, The Five Year Plan. The following year, he released his second album 7X, which featured contributions from Cline, Golia and bassist Robert Miranda.
From 1981 until 1983, Berne led an ensemble that featured saxophonist Mark Goldsbury, bassist Ed Schuller, and drummer Paul Motian. Berne’s early records and performances eventually caught the attention of producer Giovanni Bonandrini, who released Berne’s 1983 album The Ancestors and 1984’s Mutant Variations on the Soul Note label.
In 1984, Berne performed with saxophonist Vinny Golia’s “Large Ensemble” and appeared on his album Compositions for Large Ensemble,and 1986’s Facts of Their Own Lives. Berne also joined alto saxophonist John Zorn’s sextet and appeared on his album The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone, which was released in September 1986.
In 1987, Berne signed a contract with Columbia Records, his first major label record deal. Berne’s first release for the label was Fulton Street Maul, which featured guitarist Bill Frisell, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Alex Cline.
The following year, he released the album Sanctified Dreams, which included contributions from Roberts, trumpeter Herb Robertson, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Joey Baron. With the release of Sanctified Dreams, Berne began to compose for larger instrumentations. The same year, he performed on Nels Cline’s album Angelica.
1987 also saw Berne forming a trio, Miniature, with Baron and Roberts. During this time, Tim expanded his sound by adding the baritone saxophone to his repertoire. The addition of the baritone saxophone expanded his melodic palette and served as a great foil to his alto technique.
After lackluster sales of Sanctified Dreams, Columbia decided to drop him from their roster. In 1989, Tim found a new home for his music when producer Stefan Winter signed him to his label, JMT. Berne’s first release for JMT was Miniature’s 1989’s album Fractured Fairy Tales.
In 1990, Berne formed the ensemble Caos Totale, with Dresser, Robertson, trombonist Steve Swell, guitarist Marc Ducret, and drummer Bobby Previte. The same year, Berne performed with pianist Marilyn Crispell at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York.
In 1991, Berne appeared on bassist Michael Formanek’s album Extended Animation, which featured guitarist Wayne Krantz, violinist Mark Feldman, and drummer Jeff Hirshfield. Through their collaboration, they formed the trio Loose Cannon with Hirshfield and released their self-titled album in 1992. The following year, he recorded with Hemphill’s sextet on the album Five Chord Stud.
In 1994, Berne formed the group Bloodcount with Ducret, Formanek, saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, and drummer Jim Black. While still under contract with JMT, the group went to Paris in September 1994 to record a series of live concerts. The results were the albums Lowlife, Poisoned Minds, and Memory Select, which were all released in 1995. Regrettably, after the release of the albums, JMT records went bankrupt, which left many of his recordings for the label out of print.
Without a label to release his music, Berne established his second record label, Screwgun. Shortly after, Berne formed the trio Paraphrase with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. In 1996, the Kronos Quartet premiered his piece “dry, ink, silence,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The composition was made possible by grants Berne received from Reader’s Digest and Meet the Composers.
In 1997, Berne recorded with Ducret and Rainey under the name Big Satan for Stefan Winter’s Winter & Winter label. The result was their album I Think They Liked It Honey. The following year, he performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival and toured the western United States in a duo with Formanek.
In 2001, Berne traveled to Denmark and Sweden where he began to perform with the Copenhagen Art Ensemble. The group recorded the album Open, Coma, which Berne released on Screwgun. The same year, Berne released the album The Shell Game, which featured his trio Hard Cell. In 2002, he released the album The Sevens, which included several chamber pieces. The album included the ARTE Quartett, a saxophone ensemble, Ducret and guitarist David Torn.
2002 also saw the release of Berne's album Science Friction. A crowning achievement of the record is the song “Jalapeno Diplomacy," which undergoes several different tempo and meter changes, which Berne easily navigates. What is most apparent about the song is how easily Berne maintains the stability of the improvisational and compositional fragments, which is enhanced by Tom Rainey’s performance. Tim’s phrasing is so finely tuned that the shifts in meter and tempo do not affect his melodic contour, allowing one to believe that he is implementing a bigger melodic concept throughout the song.
Into the new millennium, Berne has continued to work closely with his core group of collaborators. In 2005, Paraphrase released the album Pre-Emptive Denial, a live album that was comprised of two long form tracks. The same year he appeared on David Torn’s album Prezens, which was recorded in Rhinebeck, New York. The album features Torn experimenting with guitar tones in order to create huge soundscapes. A highlight of his experimentations is the song “Structural Functions of Prezens.”
The song begins with an echo-like resonance being performed on the guitar with Berne performing a soft melody on top of it. Berne alternates between long phrases and short motifs that work with the different guitar effects in the back round. Tim’s overall tonal quality adds substantial color and ornamentations behind the guitar allowing to equally shine on its on and blend seamlessly into the arrangement.
In 2008, Berne appeared on Drew Gress’ album The Irrational Numbers, which featured the song “Chevelle.” The strength of the song lies in the melodic attack of Berne and trumpeter Ralph Alessi, who at times create lush sounding harmonic textures as well as dissonant clusters. Berne showcases his more lyrical abilities, which at times recall the timbre of alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman.
The same year, Berne began to perform with the group Buffalo Collision, which included Hank Roberts, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King, the latter two of the group The Bad Plus. The group released its debut record Duck in 2008.
Berne lives in New York, where he continues to actively perform and record.
Select Discography As a leader
As a leader
The Five Year Plan (1979)
The Ancestors (1983)
Mutant Variations (1984)
Fulton Street Maul (1987)
Sanctified Dreams (1987)
Diminutive Mysteries (1993)
Empire Box (1998)
Open, Coma (2002)
Science Friction (2003)
The Sevens (2003)
Poisoned Minds (1995)
Memory Select (1995)
Saturation Point (1997)
With Caos Totale
Pace Yourself (1991)
Nice View (1994)
With Michael Formanek
Extended Animation (1992)
Low Profile (1994)
Nature of the Beast (1996)
With the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble
Compositions for Large Ensemble (1984)
Facts of Their Own Lives (1986)
With Drew Gress
The Irrational Numbers (2008)
With the Julius Hemphill Sextet
Five Chord Stud (1994)
With Loose Cannon
Loose Cannon (1992)
Fractured Fairy Tales (1989)
I Can’t Put My Finger On It (1991)
With John Zorn
The Big Gundown (1986)
Spy Vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman (1988)
Contributor: Eric Wendell