Jumpin’ In

a column by
Greg Buium


Matt Mitchell + Tim Berne                                                                                             ©2017 Robert Lewis

Among the many strands of creative music, magical thinking must occupy its own highly ambiguous space: music that feels, even after time and repeated listening, like a secret pathway, impossible to pin down, where the connections between the rational and the fantastic are blurry at best.

“Magical thinking,” in this case, certainly isn’t meant as an insult. I’ve cribbed, and reworked, critic Adam Kirsch’s characterization of the idea in contemporary letters –  where a writer may bend rules, or just plain make up stuff (in other words, lie) to allow him and his audience “to cooperate in changing the nature of reality itself, in a way that can appear almost magical.”

In music, these are the records that plumb a private, particular language, one person’s reality: to explore, in highly original and idiosyncratic ways, the nature of this instrument, or that musical fantasy. Inevitably, these are solo events; this isn’t a collaborative way of working.

I’m thinking of albums like Anthony Braxton’s For Alto (Delmark, 1969) or Derek Bailey’s Solo Guitar (Incus, 1971) or Cecil Taylor’s Silent Tongues (Arista/Freedom, 1974), which, even after all these years, remain creative music masterpieces.

The more I’ve listened to pianist Matt Mitchell’s fascinating new solo recording, Førage (Screwgun), the more I’ve come to think of it in these terms. I will not speak to its ultimate success. (That is, quite simply, to consider the question time will ask of any work of art: whether it will last, or not.) Førage, however, seems to exist without natural antecedents. Improvisation is at the heart of its inner logic. But not only. Mitchell has used saxophonist Tim Berne’s work to act upon, and react to, in a way that is wonderfully imaginative, and feels by the end like a grand, labyrinthine journey out of Berne’s universe and into something altogether different.

Berne is of course, on one level, Mitchell’s boss. Mitchell has been a mainstay in Snakeoil, Berne’s excellent working ensemble, since the early 2010s. Their first meeting is instructive: Mitchell opened for Berne in 2009, performing an entire solo set of the older man’s music, rebuilt for a recital. “No one knows my music better than Matt,” Berne admitted recently. “He might know it even better than I do at this point.”

But let’s be clear: this isn’t a “Matt Mitchell-Plays-the-Music-of ...” record. But it’s nothing like, say, a Paul Bley record either – in the way the Canadian-born pianist put Carla Bley’s and Annette Peacock’s songs at the heart of his most inventive (read: magical) music-making. Open, to Love (ECM, 1972), his first solo recording, is still the supreme instance of this way of working.

Førage barely sounds like a Tim Berne record at all. Often, you’ll need to be an expert in the minute shades and slivers of the saxophonist’s writing to catch a glimpse. Førage feels at first freely improvised; it only seems loosely related to Berne’s book. Early reviews and the record’s press kit have homed in on the key adjectives. Mitchell, it’s been written, “devises mash-ups” and “new angles,” “refracting,” “reconfiguring,” “refashioning,” and “reimagining” Berne’s music.

Mitchell has, in fact, shared some of the road maps – “CLØÙDĒ,” for one, is an amalgam of pieces from Snakeoil (ECM, 2012) and The Shell Game (Thirsty Ear, 2001), while “ŒRBS” takes a head from Snakeoil and an introduction from Shadow Man (ECM, 2013). Mitchell turns over a line and tumbles into another. Stitching it all together would require a schematic of some substance.

Yet, no matter how abstract (or opaque) this feels, it rings true – to anyone who’s ever embedded himself deeply into someone else’s music. We all do this. When we listen, when we burrow into our favorite work, we bring it inside, internalize it, and then begin to construct, reconstruct, and deconstruct it for ourselves – out loud, in our inner ear, in our own particular, immensely eclectic sound universe. This is what we do when we sing in the shower. This is what we do when we daydream about music. This is when our intellect and our imagination become an engine with enormous power. I say this fundamentally as a listener. But if you play an instrument, I suspect the psychology might be deployed in similar ways.

The entire appearance of Førage fuels this fantasy. The titles (“PÆNË,” “TRĀÇĘŚ,” “ÀÄŠ,” “RÄÅY,” “SÎÏÑ”) deepen the impression: accents that feel meaningless on the one hand, and fantastic on the other. The personnel is spelled differently every time: Tìm, Tīm, Bernë, Bernę, Mått Mitchelł, and producer Davîd Torñ. It’s part of the effect, stretching language. So, too, I would suggest is the whole Screwgun operation. Berne’s seemingly dormant label is back as if it were the turn of the century – the coarse, industrial cardboard sleeve, the Steven Byram design. Unwittingly, this is an extension of Mitchell’s elaborate, and surreal, journey into Berne’s book.

If given the resources – as a musician, as an artist, as a producer – isn’t this how we’d all do things? Locate yourself within a body of work you admire. Then jettison anything matter of fact. Before this, Tim Berne’s writing wouldn’t have felt like a natural fit for a piano recital: yet here it is.

This is among the many reasons why Førage is so enjoyable. Pre-listening – spotting the minute, light-speed shifts in the Berne canon – isn’t required. Mitchell transports you onto his own platform – this churning, rumbling, tender, stop-start portrait, this magical relationship between a man and a body of music.

©2017 Greg Buium

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