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John Berndt: New Logic for Old Saxophones

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John Berndt

New Logic for Old Saxophones

Creative Sources

Given the wide range of John Berndt’s activities, projects, and partnerships over the last 30 years—big band outings, playing with Neil Feather on Feather’s invented instruments, being one horn in the brass section powering the Baltimore Afrobeat Society, leading his own Multiphonic Choir, his work as a composer documented by his last pair of recordings, 2007’s Occupation 1980-1990 (HeereSee) and 2008’s The Private Language Problem: New Electro-Acoustic Composition, 2001-2007, various underground ephemera, etc.—it’s actually quite nice to hear him do something so, well, thoroughly traditional as the solo saxophone album. Long-standing Berndt-associated projects—the Red Room, High Zero—put a premium on the new and the unheard, on creating/hearing/experiencing the hitherto uncreated/unexperienced. And sometimes it’s difficult to hear the unheard when you’ve spent a lifetime trying to make your own uncategory.

New Logic for Old Saxophones features 15 solos on either soprano or alto, and it’s not so much that Berndt’s playing, approach, or even sounds are derivative of some other specific free-improv player, but the notion of the solo sax album feels like a concession to a greater discussion. Three pieces’ titles actually include dedications—“Melancholy at the Base of the Volcano (for Gianna Gebbia),” “A Material Answer (for Christine Sehnaoui-Aabdelnour),” and “Capsules (for Anthony Braxton)”—a tried/true benediction used by saxmen from Ken Vandermark to Braxton himself.

And from the moving, rich opening notes of lead-off track “A Slow Descent Into the Flower,” Berndt proves he’s been listening as much over the past 30-odd years of music making as he’s been trying to forge new ground. As great as his sonic jolts can be in out-of-pocket ensembles and configurations, hearing Berndt have to conform to meter when playing in the Baltimore Afrobeat Society or even do something more ecstatic when playing in his own Multiphonic Choir offers mini-rewards that you don’t get otherwise. It’s refreshing to hear the breath control vacillating from skronk to clean that concludes “Descent”’s nearly four-minute solo. It’s refreshing to hear the gentle aspirations and harmonics that open “Phantasm,” the circular breathing powering the series of ascending and descending notes in “Manifold,” the subtlety that sculpts “The Alloy of Summer and Mind” into such a reflective skein.

These are familiar sounds and extended techniques of free-jazz reeds players, and it’s always interesting to hear a player who hasn’t so much shunned them but sought something else show up and use them to often eloquent ends. “The Levels” offers a brisk display of almost post-bop runs, while on “Noncontinuum,” Berndt’s (what sounds like) soprano flattens notes into a spectral wash. And on album standout “Capsules (for Anthony Braxton),” Berndt comes damn close to doing something conventional: spurt, screech, and valve-pop an abstract sax solo in the style of somebody who came before. (Bret McCabe)

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