Review: BB & C (Tim Berne, Jim Black and Nels Cline) at the Vortex

BB & C at the Vortex
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

BB & C at the Vortex
(8 February 2014; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

The first house set at the Vortex, by BB & C, the American trio of Tim Berne (alto sax), Jim Black (drums and electronics) and Nels Cline (guitar and electronics), was one of those rare occasions where the future of jazz was glimpsed with uncanny clarity. BB & C's performance was a ruthlessly intelligent and committed manifesto for the way jazz travels and evolves, absorbs the lessons of other genres and embraces the interface with technology, without losing the links with its all-important heritage.

There is something about this improvising trio that sets it apart, not least from young pretenders. Mature, intense, utterly uncompromising, they revelled in the ways that they could combine their ideas and carve out fresh, sometimes intentionally uncomfortable routes of expression.

This was dense jazz friction, running with a frantic overload, brimming with menacing tensions briefly interposed with placid lulls. Black and Cline hopped on to the bridge where electronic manipulation added to the vocabularies of the drum kit and the electric guitar, while Berne remained wickedly faithful to the acoustic properties of the alto, blending physically distorted stresses with luxuriant, railing tones. The Vortex's crisp sound mix and intimate acoustics ensured that nothing of the complex detail was lost.

Berne, never one to allow himself to rest on the laurels of his formidable reputation, understatedly shaped the direction of their hour-long opener and a short final piece, offering oblique, jazz melodic initiatives that Black and Cline took up with imagination and energetic finesse, to engineer a complex, layered mash beyond mere light and shade.

Black is one of the most accomplished and versatile drummers around. He exuded an intuitive sense of exactly how to punctuate proceedings at any given moment, adding speckled highlights, crushed textures and shifts of momentum, whacking in drips of funk, tentative taps, scratches, scrabbles and cloth-dampened rolls, as well as kicking off the set with croaking bass pulses.

Cline, known to a wider audience as guitarist with rock outfit, Wilco, has operated in broadly left-field, alternative zones, where he has frequently collaborated with Thurston Moore, and first teamed up with Tim Berne in the late 80s. Making his Vortex début, he demonstrated an astounding range as he pushed himself through stuttering, rapid runs meshed with echoes and disorientating loops and tonal stretches. Adding bagpipe drones to the shifting sands, he dredged the anguish of the blues with searing vocal distortions, joined by Black with a violin bow scraping at the cymbals and Berne contributing harmonica timbres.

Berne's raw eloquence and beautifully poised phrasing in his solo spots served as vital reference points with the jazz canon and meshed seamlessly with the rough and tumble of the main thrust.

The spirit of  jazz, right from its earliest days, has offered extended possibilities that are rarely equalled by other musical forms, and when these are taken up by the imaginative risk-takers, they can renew, redefine and breathe new life into the genre. BB & C shone the torch on the way forward.

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