Recorded live on 22-25 September 1994 at Instants Chavire's, Montreuil, Paris, France.
The recorded history of Tim Berne's Bloodcount can thus far be divided into two pieces of torta: the comparatively slick productions of the currently out of print JMT CDs and the "not produced" guerilla-tactic releases of Berne's Screwgun label. Given this dichotomy, hearing Bloodcount on CD can be like listening to two different bands, depending on which label the band appears. The JMT and Screwgun releases each have their merits - not a surprise since Berne formed the group when at a creative peak, which he sustained past the JMT years into his second experience running his own independent label (the Empire years being the first). That said, there is something very special about the three JMT CDs by the Bloodcount band of Berne, bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Jim Black, saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, and (sitting in here but absent from the Screwgun quartet recordings) electric guitarist Marc Ducret recorded live at Instants Chavires in Paris in 1994. The three recordings are crystalline clear, with great dynamic range and separation among the instruments, suiting the music - which can range from white-hot free jazz to quiet chamberesque musings - quite well. In the first of the three, Lowlife, a searching quality tends to dominate the three lengthy tracks, as the band usually takes its time reaching explicit statements of Berne's (and Julius Hemphill's) thematic material. The music even meanders, but such a description shouldn't be put in a negative light. The band is in no hurry as it investigates Berne's sonic world, but is never reduced to aimless noodling; the musicians' improvisations remain too close to theme, melody, and mode - or compelling abstraction - for that. "Bloodcount" (the composition by Berne, not Strayhorn's "Blood Count") is the leadoff track, and it often ebbs and flows without sharply articulated unison statements. The band slowly builds up to a fearsome energy level, bringing the music closer to the classic "free jazz" form - everyone wails on Berne's lines but hitting the note simultaneously is not an overriding concern. However, midway through the piece, Berne on alto and Speed on tenor lock into a soulful melody as Ducret and Formanek provide an underpinning that practically defines Berne-ish compositional angularity. Hemphill's "Reflections/Lyric/Skin 1" is next, in a sometimes elegiac, sometimes fiery (particularly during Ducret's crazed guitar solo) suite that comprises the CD's second track. (It's uncharacteristic for Bloodcount to play non-originals but not surprising to cover Hemphill, given the legendary late saxophonist's mentoring role during Berne's early New York years.) Still, for those seeking the kind of tight-configuration unison and counterpoint of Berne at his most twisted and funky, the band suddenly kicks in gear about 14 minutes into the last track, "Prelude: The Brown Dog Meets the Spaceman," after an exploratory Formanek solo. Berne takes a hot solo spot on alto over the band's skronky accompaniment, and then everyone is back in the tumble as wild free jazz again reigns, until - in one of those unbelievable Bloodcount transitions - they're somehow all back together, flying through the theme. And that's before a Jim Black drum solo that winds down, bringing the dynamics of the piece toward an understated, chamberesque coda. Flirting with abrasive tones and textures at its close, the coda features a disturbed clarinet solo from Speed over a funereal drumbeat and melancholy chord voicings harking back to the quieter moments of the Hemphill suite. It's imbued with a somber disquiet, and as terribly beautiful as creative improvised music can get. The journey here was worth it and would have been enough, but of course Berne had an unexpected payoff in waiting all along. (Winter & Winter is planning to release all three of the Bloodcount Instants Chavires discs first issued on the now defunct JMT label, and Lowlife is tentatively scheduled to be available in September 2005.)
-Dave Lynch (All Music Guide)