BB&C, Vortex Jazz Club, London – review

BB&C are an equal-partners trio of strong personalities with a subversive bent. They mash up acoustic free jazz with grungy guitar rock, deconstruct beats and promise odd juxtapositions. At this gig, Tim Berne’s laconic and lyrical alto sax sailed over drummer Jim Black’s mischievous polyrhythmic rock while edgy Wilco guitarist Nels Cline’s growly and gravelly chords justified the earplugs sported by one of the bar staff. And both Black and Cline had things to twiddle, adding samples and echoes, squelchy bass and industrial noise. The acoustic Berne pitched in by muting his sax with a small plastic water bottle.

But they took time to mesh, and spent the first half of their long, through-improvised first-house set darting from one tableau to the next without letting the music settle. At their best moments, Berne’s balladry and squawking, squeaking fury blended perfectly with Cline’s battery of sounds and effects and Black’s deconstructed beats were a brilliantly unsettling counterpoint. But there were other times when the trio seemed to be feeling their way, were unbalanced or were pulling in different directions.

The set opened with Black whizzing through the dials of his sampler – he started with a whoof of funky synth bass, loitered with some grindy echo and ended with an ominous electronic slurp. Cline slashed out distorted notes, Berne a maelstrom of phonics and Black his trademark spacious beats. Then a downbeat sequence of bell-like tones and oblique sax floated over sporadic cymbal splashes. A sudden burst of energy lasted only a trice, then returned, veered off at a tangent and ended up smouldering behind a patina of industrial grime.

The changes were fast, sometimes furious and worked best when one musician took the lead. Berne’s haunting lyricism over Cline’s abstract wash of sound and the guitarist’s punkish energy were genuine highlights. And Black’s way of simultaneously establishing a pulse and pulling it to pieces was mesmerising.

After an hour of continuous performance the band stopped dead when in full cry, but had time to spare. A short second piece, as simpatico as it was quickfire and compact, filled the gap. Summery sax wafted over softly picked guitar, the band gradually moved out of sync – rhythmically and harmonically – and then came together for a unison riff. There were delta blues wails and power chords too, elegiac lulls and a truncated burst of funk to round things off.

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