Big Satan, Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham – 8th February 2018
Tim Berne occupies a large section of my ever expanding collection of Compact Discs. He nestles comfortably behind The Fall, Miles Davis and Dave Douglas, just inching in front of Dave Graney in respect of shelf width. His music has been a main part of my listening since I first read of him in The Wire back when Richard Cook was the editor. Oddly though, through a combination of distance , broken ankles, kidney stones and work related distractions I had never seen him perform live until now.
His back catalogue is immense with probably the greatest variety of band names and combinations of musicians known to man. Whether it be Paraphrase, Hard Cell, Bloodcount, Buffalo Collision or the more recent Snakeoil, there has always been a mind tingling variety of music in his output. but all dominated by his unique approach to writing and playing.
This is not easy music. The “when does the tune start” mob should stop reading now as you will not be interested. The pieces are often lengthy, complex, tangential and challenging. But it is a aural journey you should take if you are interested in the capacity of music, especially jazz, to grow and influence all around it.
Tim only played two UK dates on this tour, and generally only plays London. Fortunate and pleasing therefore that his group with Marc Ducret and Tom Rainey , collectively known as Big Satan, are playing in Birmingham. Only 90 minutes on the train from Manchester Piccadilly to New Street and a short bus ride to the Midlands Art Centre, and tickets a bargain at £10!
I meet the other Bob (travelling north from Northampton) on the main concourse at New Street and we decamp to a delightful pub called The Post Office Vaults for a couple of beers. Another pub and then a quick Italian (where the concept of El Dente was perhaps taken too far) precedes a bus journey to Edgbaston where nestles the sprawling Midlands Arts Centre, which appears to have been designed by someone on psychotropic drugs with a fondness for M.C.Escher, and where the majority of the toilets are out of commission. Another quick beer and then into the Hexagon Theatre.
A compact room in a semi-round formation the distance between the performers and the audience is small allowing for an intimate appreciation of the music.
Tim, Marc and Tom launch into a fascinating performance which contains the familiar elements of Big Satan music (from the three albums to date) but also new aspects. The three players have distinct personas within the collective sound, but the overall combination is seamless and there is a distinct lack of ego in the delivery.
Rainey is more than impressive, whether it is his effortless delivery, the use of hands, brushes, sticks, bags of sticks or even the music stand, to create a range of percussive treats, or indeed the poly-rhythmic interplay with the other two. There are few drummers I have had the pleasure of seeing who can use the kit as a genuine tonal instrument and Rainey is one of the best.
Ducret is similarly captivating, he has is back to us for most of the set due to the configuration of the room but he still manages to captivate. His body arches as he delivers either flurries of notes, impressive finger breaking chords, or slaps to the strings. I was fascinated with his continuous use of his volume knobs and pedals to create unique sounds. One of the most captivating guitarists in terms of “how the hell is he doing that?” is has been my pleasure to watch.
Berne is, of course, superb. His self-effacing air, his studied concentration, and his fluid delivery all added to the overall enjoyment of the music. There are so many notes it is no wonder that sheet music is needed to deliver this complex and impressive material. He moves between delightful melodic playing to reed bending sound creation with ease. The music is the jazz equivalent of say Trout Mask Replica or Lick My Decals Off, or Gentle Giant at their most inventive, if you want some sort of rock comparison. Not that you should need that sort of yardstick of course, this is music which stands very well on its own occupying a singular place in the world of jazz.
Much of the set is unfamiliar , but a Julius Hemphill tune, and one of Ducret’s I think I recognise from one of the earlier albums, are included. It is mostly new material all of which is excellent and I hope gets recorded at some point. During the break Tim hawks the new 3CD set of Science Friction recordings (Big Satan + Craig Taborn = Science Friction) but I know have them all already so a purchase is not necessary. The short interval however puts us up to the wire on getting back to New Street to catch the train back to Manchester and Northampton respectively so we have to leave half way through the final number of the second set much to my disappointment.
Fortunate that we left when we did though as the taxi driver struggles to find his way back to New Street due to road works and the monsoon like conditions do not help. However we make it in time to catch the penultimate train back to Manchester and Northampton respectively.
A long desired wish to see Tim Berne has been realised but as the train slowly makes it way back north I ponder on the need for me to make this journey and the paucity of free/avant garde jazz music in the Manchester conurbation, and, what steps need to be taken to get someone like Tim to play in the North West. Surely there must be a big enough audience for this type of music in the so-called music capital of the North to make it all viable? With venues like The Peer Hat I suppose anything is possible but are there are enough like minded souls to venture out on a Thursday night to listen to music of this type? Can we have a Vortex or Cafe Oto in Manchester and make it work? It’s hard enough putting “rock” gigs on, times are hard and money is tight. I guess the consequence of this journey was that it has made me think about why excellent music of this nature isn’t afforded more access. Not to sound like a broken record but the domination of the majority of venues in Manchester (including sadly the Band on the Wall) by cloned tribute acts is a sad indictment of the way new music, whether it be jazz or rock, is treated these days.
Not from the gig I attended but from a few years back here is an example of what you missed