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Renowned saxophonist/composer Tim Berne not discounting chances for spontaneity in Austin debut

Parry Gettelman

Saxophonist and composer Tim Berne has been making consistently stellar albums for more than three decades, featuring some of the most notable improvisers on the contemporary scene Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Jim Black and Ethan Iverson, just for starters. Berne's newest release, "Snakeoil," nevertheless stands out as one of his most enthralling. Balancing raw expression and thorny contemplation, blending artful composition and inspired spontaneity, it pretty much demands to be played over and over, preferably through headphones.

So a listening room such as the Cactus Cafe seems like a suitable venue for Berne's first-ever Austin performance, but what he wanted to know in a recent phone conversation was:

"Is it a bar?"

Well, yeah, it's a bar ...

"See, I like that! I'm happy about that! There's a certain informality; it doesn't have to be too much ‘Here we go, this is "art," ' " Berne said from Brooklyn, where his neighbors, fortuitously, include the likes of pianist Matt Mitchell, drummer Ches Smith and clarinetist Oscar Noriega, his cohorts in his current quartet.

"We all live pretty close to each other, so we can rehearse a lot, and because of that I had the luxury of being able to write a lot of material and just rehearse and try things and reject things," Berne said. "There are a lot of little dives to play at in Brooklyn; it's pretty low-pressure, and we did a lot of that for a couple years."

The group also did a tour before heading into the studio to make "Snakeoil," Berne's first studio album in eight years and first as a leader for ECM. The lengthy evolutionary period allowed the musicians to get used to Berne's material and style of writing, and by playing together in various configurations in other bands as well, they developed a particularly strong chemistry that promotes creativity.

"And there's just the comfort level," Berne said. "We're less likely to repeat ourselves — when the confidence comes, you tend to be more independent, more willing to take chances. These guys have a lot of freedom to come in and out when they want, it's not quite as predictable as ‘This will be a solo; this is a trio.'

"Things kind of happen by surprise, and when you're playing and you can be surprised by your own music, when that stuff happens, it gets kind of magical."

Earlier in his career, Berne tended to be more "arrangement-conscious," he said.

"But as I became a better player, I became more relaxed about the idea of just letting it happen. I've done it enough — I don't have anything to prove."

Berne described his recent compositions as influencing a situation without hemming anybody in.

"It definitely starts from having all this written stuff floating around, and if it's good, if it's successful, it gives you a lot of ideas for what to do next. All it is, it just gives a little bit of direction, and you either ignore it or not. Even if you choose to ignore it, it's already caused you to do something, because you had to make a decision."

Heading into the studio, Berne had to choose tracks from among four or five sets' worth of material. He wound up selecting pieces with subtleties that might not always be heard in less-than-pristine live settings and that took fullest advantage of an acclaimed producer's expertise.

"Manfred Eicher has a lot of experience producing classical music, so I used material that benefits from that, his experience working with ensembles, dealing with dynamics. He can get a lot of the sounds on those records that expose a lot of detail."

The result is an album that is crowded with complexity but retains a rare sense of openness and expansion.

"It's hard to be dense and spacious at the same time, but that's what I was trying for," Berne said.

Of course, given that "Snakeoil" represents only a fraction of the quartet's output, what they play at the Cactus could be entirely different, somewhat in keeping with the album's title, which may or may not be the name of the band as well; Berne is keeping his options open at this point.

"It fits with the band," he joked. "We pretty much sell everything."

Tim Berne: Snakeoil