The story of the creation of «KOI» is read like a fairy tale, simply because there is real magic in this story. American sax player-composer Tim Berne is the musical hero of young guitarist Gregg Belisle-Chi, 31 years old. Last year, Berne saw Belisle-Chi’s posts on Instagram playing guitar alongside his ’s solo album, «Sacred Vowels» (Screwgun, 2020). Berne was so impressed that he sent Belisle-Chi a stack of sheet music and encouraged him to record his music on an acoustic steel-string guitar, so it would sound more personal. Belisle-Chi just moved to Kingston, New York, in the winter of 2020, while he was fatigued by the pandemic. But he found in his new home the quiet and solitude that led to the recording of «KOI: Performing the music of Tim Berne».
Belisle-Chi recorded himself, with guidance from Berne’s long-time collaborator, guitarist David Torn, who mixed, mastered and co-produced the album with Berne. Another Berne’s close comrade, Steve Byram, did the cover art. It is clear why Berne liked Belisle-Chi’s interpretation of his music. Belisle-Chi sounds like no other, he has a flawless technique, crystalline sound and perfect phrasing, as well as a deep understanding of Berne’s idiosyncratic compositional strategies, and he offers an insightful perspective on Berne’s mercurial compositions, with their own uncompromising logic and the unique way their ecstatic power sneaks upon the listener. No wonder that guitarists-collaborators of Berne like Torn, Bill Frisell, Marc Ducret and Nels Cline with The Police’s Andy Summers praised Belisle-Chi work on this album.
Belisle-Chi interprets ten of Berne’s compositions. His versions are, obviously, intimate and compact, stripping these compositions to their essence and highlighting the lyricism in Berne’s repertoire. Like pianist Matt Mitchell, who interpreted Berne’s composition on «FØRAGE» (Screwgun, 2017), Belisle-Chi was not bound by the written compositions but shaped them according to his own aesthetics. He simply lets the music speak, letting it breathe with a strong sense of openness, with no effects, as if he is meditating on Berne’s music, or demonstrating how Berne’s music became an integral part of his musical DNA.
Belisle-Chi balances the compositional themes with his own economic improvisations. He interprets three compositions from Berne duo with Mitchell, «Angel Dusk» (Screwgun, 2018) – «Chance», «Reception» and «Starfish Blues», and when hearing these poignant, chamber versions it becomes clear why Manfred Eicher was so keen to recruit Berne to ECM’s roster of artists. «Trauma One» shines with its understated economy and its subtle emotional impact. Belisle-Chi interpretation of «Huh/Brokelyn» (the latter originally played by Hardcell, with pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey, («Feign»), Screwgun, 2005) highlights his mastery of the counterpoint and harmony in Berne’s music. He adds a sliding, folky touch to «Middle Seat Blues» and distances this composition from Berne’s dense, urban sound, and states, straight ahead, the beautiful melody of «Huevos» (originally performed on «Science Friction», Screwgun, 2002, with Ducret, Taborn and Rainey, and later by Hardcell on «Electric And Acoustic Hard Cell Live», Screwgun, 2004). «Sequins» ends this album with a somber tone, emphasizing the silences in Berne’s music.
A truly inspiring and visionary masterpiece and clearly one of the best albums of this year.
Gregg Belisle-Chi (acc-g)