The Shell Game (Thirsty Ear)
Reviewed by Michael Chamy, Fri., June 15, 2001
The Shell Game (Thirsty Ear)If jazz scares you, then don't call it jazz. Tim Berne wouldn't want you to anyway. The Shell Game is part of Thirsty Ear's Matthew Shipp-curated Blue Series, dedicated to expanding and possibly eradicating the boundaries of jazz. And hell if it doesn't do just that, due in large part to the prominent role of keyboardist Craig Taborn in this unlikely trio. The Shell Game opens innocuously enough with "Hard Cell (for Tom)," an energetic piece based around a circular sax line. That's about as jazz as it gets. Two minutes in, the trio forgets the double-z word and the song breaks down into an eerie calm, Taborn's electric piano filling in the seams between the heavy stitchings of silence. It's on the 20-plus-minute second track, "Twisted/Straight Jacket," that the trio really goes mental. Taborn lays down a dark, heavy, atmospheric backdrop over which Berne's alto sax squeaks and creaks its way through uncharted waters. At times, it's hard to tell whether the sound is emanating from Taborn's equipment, from Berne's lungs, or from a gust of wind sweeping through a deserted mansion at the stroke of midnight. Drummer Tom Rainey's pitter-patter makes for unsettling accompaniment, as Berne pushes his sax to its upper limits, holding long, sustained notes before rising and falling in rapid succession even as Rainey's creeping ambience threatens to envelop the entire picture. The Shell Game plays like an epic novel, full of unexpected twists and turns, ultimately rewarding the repeat listener with a powerful cocktail, equal parts inspiration and intrigue.