ECM Records, founded in Munich, Germany, in 1969 by Manfred Eicher, quickly became an imprint that anyone interested in progressive music – jazz primarily, but also free improvisation, contemporary classical music, unconventional world-music projects, and styles considerably less readily defined – had to pay attention to. More than four decades later, the label retains its cachet, a trust established and maintained through excellent sound, stimulating texts, visual appeal, and Eicher’s knack for cultivating noteworthy talent.
This season ECM is in residence at National Sawdust, presenting a series of concerts that starts on December 3 with a rare appearance by Sun of Goldfinger, a high-wire improv trio featuring saxophonist Tim Berne, guitarist and soundscaper David Torn, and percussionist Ches Smith.
Berne, a seasoned avant-jazz saxophonist, composer, and bandleader, likely enjoys the widest recognition among the three players, and has released three albums by his latest band, Snakeoil, on ECM. Smith is Snakeoil’s percussionist, but his resumé sprawls well beyond, including recordings and gigs with Terry Riley, Mr. Bungle, Xiu Xiu, and Secret Chiefs 3. His ECM debut as a bandleader, The Bell, arrived in January 2016. Torn, a protean creator associated now and again with ECM since 1985, is among the music-world elite; his sinuous guitar has been integral to recordings by David Bowie, John Legend, and Tori Amos, among others, and he’s a prolific composer for film and television.
In a recent telephone interview, Berne talked about his long creative partnership with Torn, and about what it’s been like for a prominent D.I.Y. advocate to collaborate with Eicher and ECM.
STEVE SMITH: This particular band has been around for a while now, and you’ve done a tour of Brazil. How did the three of you connect?
TIM BERNE: David met Ches through me, producing my ECM stuff, and we’d talked about doing this. We did a gig in Denver – that might have been the first gig, but it’s probably been over the last three years.
Chatting before we started this interview, you stated that Sun of Goldfinger is really more David’s band than yours. But how is that distinction manifest in a purely improvisational setting? Is it a matter of tone?
Ha ha…you caught me. [Laughs] I think he initially generated it – he said, let’s do this thing with Ches, let’s do a trio, sort of post-Prezens. It’s not that important, really…it’s more important if we’re doing a tour that David’s the point man for certain info. But yeah, it’s pretty much me and David, I guess you could say.
The reason I asked is because you have a well-established history with free-improvisation groups under your leadership, certainly going back to Paraphrase in the 1990s.
It’s semantics, really, to be honest – I don’t think it really matters. I think sometimes with these things, if we’re booking a tour it makes more sense to have it be “David’s project.” I don’t want people to perceive it as mine, because then they assume that there’s going to be these tunes and it’s going to be a different thing.
So then you’re warding off expectations that it’s going to be exclusively your compositions and your aesthetic.
Exactly, especially since Ches is involved.
You’ve been aware of Torn for a long time now. What was it that brought you together?
We started working together when I put out Bloodcount Unwound [in 1996]. I found out that he did mastering, and he mastered those. We hung out extensively – I mean, the first day we hung out for basically 24 hours. Gradually that led to some playing situations, and then I had a friend in Oregon who kept telling me, “You should do something with David Torn.” I kept going, really? And then I thought, yeah, maybe I should. We became such good friends, we were like, yeah, we’ve got to play together.
The two of you finally recorded together on Prezens, released by ECM under Torn’s name in 2007.
With Prezens, [Torn] knew [keyboardist] Craig [Taborn] from the Science Friction stuff that he produced, and Tom [Rainey], and I said we should do a quartet thing with those guys. I think the first one we did was incredible, and then he started Prezens. And then we did the recording, and then we did several tours. And now, you know, he’s produced a billion of my records and we’re basically best friends, and when I sense that his film stuff’s driving him crazy, I’ll say, let’s do a tour, let’s start a band, whatever, and then we do it. He’s kind of not programmed the way most of us are in that he has to tour incessantly… he’s got all these other things on his plate: the film stuff, and Bowie a couple of years ago. So I’ll pick a spot and say, let’s do a tour, just throw it up there, and a lot of stuff will happen as a result.
Did you know his own music, going all the way back to Everyman Band in the ’80s?
I do now, but when I first met him I didn’t know any of that stuff. I had this idea of David… I’d heard him with [saxophonist Jan] Garbarek live in 1987. I think I just kind of put him in a box and said, this guy does this. Which isn’t very definable, because when you listen to him, you can’t really say he plays fusion or he plays rock on those records… it’s like, what is this? I underestimated it because I didn’t listen to it. And then it was like, holy shit! [Laughs] When we started playing together, I realized how much music he knows – I mean, he toured with Don Cherry, he’s played with David Sylvian, he’s done everything. And he listens to the stuff I listen to. Once there’s that shared listening thing, then the playing part of it is almost irrelevant… I know I can play with someone.
Ches wasn’t involved with Prezens, so how did he come into this mix?
I think just David checking him out with Snakeoil and enjoying his playing. And also, Ches has a really extensive rock background, which fits in nicely with the volume aspect. And it’s just something new; it’s always good to try something new. On those Snakeoil sessions he was always so open to trying new things. So it’s not like there was this big “okay, who do we get?” It was just, “hey, let’s play with Ches.”
I want to talk to you specifically about your ECM association, because you’ve quite famously been associated with releasing your own records at numerous points in your career, starting with Empire and then with Screwgun. How did you and Manfred finally connect?
I’ve known Manfred for a while and I’ve usually had pleasant conversations with him. And in the back of my mind it was like, yeah, I’d really like on ECM for all the obvious reasons: I’d like to sell some records, I’m tired of doing it myself, etcetera, etcetera. When Snakeoil happened, I thought, This is kind of an instrumentation that I could see doing with him, something he might like. I was kind of ready to make a studio record. I’m not afraid of collaborating anymore; I’d been working with Torn and I kind of got over my dictatorship thing.
At some point [Manfred] relented. I think he was a little afraid of me – I’m not sure he really thought he would like my music, or whatever it was. All these people think, oh, god, you’re going to go in there and he’s going to tell you what to do. But I just came in, picked the tunes, did what I always do, and picked the best takes. It was easy working with him. He had an opinion, which he’s entitled to – it’s his money – and 80 percent of the time we agreed. A couple of times he said things I didn’t agree with, and a couple of times he came up with good ideas that we used – little arrangement things, or he got me thinking about instrument combinations. But I made the record I set out to make, and I picked the material that I wanted on my next studio record – I’m pretty sure I hadn’t made one in a while.
I had a very specific group of tunes I wanted to do, that were harmonically different than what I’d been doing. I think people confused that with, “Oh, he wanted to make an ECM record,” which is really not the case. And I think people forget about the [Jimmy] Giuffre records, Paul Bley, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago…
Old and New Dreams.
Yeah. When you hang out with Manfred, those are the records he talks about. So I had no issues; I wasn’t worried about any of that. People make a big deal out of it, but as you know, I’m pretty strong willed. And we’re very similar: we both like to work fast, we both don’t like to take breaks, so in a way it fit very well. And also, in terms of his seriousness, Manfred knows how to sell [records]… obviously with a particular person helping him. [Editor’s note: Berne’s wife, Sara Humphries-Berne, has long been ECM’s U.S. label director.] And I’m interested in that.
I admit, I’d come to associate the punk-rock aesthetic and in-your-face attitude of your Screwgun releases as being synonymous with your personal inner ear. So initially I was less surprised that you’d work with ECM than that the label’s aesthetic could accommodate yours.
Right, but also, there was a huge gap between the Science Friction stuff and my next studio record, and the Hard Cell stuff. And it’s because I was trying to figure out another thing; I’d played out the Science Friction thing, and I was deep into piano world, looking for the next group, the next people to work with. And when I met Matt Mitchell, the light bulb went on. And the instrumentation allows me to be super delicate, and then really powerful. Now Ches is playing vibes and timpani, and that was the idea: to have a percussionist, not a drummer. And also, the clarinet/piano thing gives you a lot of flexibility. I was looking to change what I was doing, and generally it happens with instrumentation and the people I play with. So that’s what did it, it wasn’t like, O.K., now I’m going to play something softer. I just wanted to change it up and write stuff that was maybe a little more complicated, a little denser, a little different, a little more harmonic, in a way.
Did the initial studio album that you made with Snakeoil confirm the idea that you could move further in this or that direction?
Well, it documented what I thought we were doing really accurately. It was great to make a record and then to know that at least there was an opportunity for people to hear it, that it was going to go all over the world. It helps with the touring… not that much, but it helps. It gives me a sense of credibility; I couldn’t get reviewed if my life depended on it between JMT and the Screwgun stuff. So then it was like, “oh, yeah, he must have gotten better!” [Laughs] It gave me credibility, official credibility… and I just got tired of doing everything myself and having these records that I thought were pretty important, the Hard Cell and Science Friction, get ignored by everybody except for the fans.
Finally, I’d like to get you to talk about a handful of ECM records that you’ve picked as personally important. The first is Afric Pepperbird, by Jan Garbarek [released in 1970].
There’s one more that I forgot to mention, that Giuffre Trio set that ECM reissued. But Afric Pepperbird, have you ever listened to that record?
I think so, though the first Garbarek record I strongly remember is Sart, from the next year.
It was way back. Check it out; he sounds like Archie Shepp. It’s incredible, he’s screaming. I was listening to that record in the early ’70s, when it first came out. That’s when I got into ECM… [Keith Jarrett’s] Facing You, I happened to see the concert right around that time, when Jarrett played solo in Syracuse. Those were exciting records, and I was deep into getting imports through mail order. There was a mail-order place that was under where ECM was… I went there and I remember going, “Holy shit, this is the ECM building!” [Laughs] I probably met him and didn’t even know it; this was like ’72 or something. So I was really into it, really into those early packages. The Art Ensemble stuff I liked, though I liked their Nessa stuff better – but the fact that he was doing it, and Paul Bley, and Paul Motian, Conception Vessel and those records. And what I liked about it was that he didn’t have this defeatist attitude: “you can’t sell this shit.” He sold those records and built something, and that shows his belief in it.