A native Californian who grew up in Santa Barbara, drummer Tom Rainey moved to New York City in 1979 while in his early twenties (after studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston starting in 1975 and then returning to California to live in San Francisco). The new resident of Brooklyn kicked around town with some straight-ahead jazz gigs in the early '80s and began playing in a trio with pianist Kenny Werner and bassist Ratzo Harris (having first encountered the latter at a California music camp), and in the early to mid-'80s met and started gigging with saxophonist Tim Berne, although Rainey would not appear on a recording with Berne until Big Satan's I Think They Liked It Honey, recorded live in Paris in 1996. But in the interim, Rainey made a lasting impression on discs by Werner, Jane Ira Bloom, Fred Hersch, Mark Helias, Tom Varner, Ray Anderson, Andy Laster, New and Used, and others, before live and studio dates with Berne began taking up a larger portion of his schedule. On a number of recordings -- including albums by the Fred Hersch Trio and Paraphrase (the latter featuring Berne on saxophones) -- Rainey was paired with bassist Drew Gress, forming an empathetic bass-drums tandem heard on a number of notable avant and modern creative jazz discs.
From the mid-'90s well into the 2000s, Rainey forged a close musical partnership with Berne, performing and recording with the saxophonist in the ensembles Big Satan, Paraphrase, Hard Cell, and Science Friction. Paraphrase offered listeners an opportunity to hear Rainey's mastery of the drum kit in three-way improvisational dialogues, the drummer's notions of propulsion and momentum as well as texture and color keeping the music moving forward where other collective improvisational experiments might have collapsed into aimlessness. Visitation Rites and Please Advise, two Paraphrase CDs (live German club recordings from 1996 and 1998) released on Berne's Screwgun label, are good places to hear Rainey at his most freewheeling. And in Big Satan (Berne, Rainey, and guitarist Marc Ducret), Science Friction (Berne, Rainey, Ducret, and keyboardist Craig Taborn), and Hard Cell (Rainey, Berne, and Taborn), Rainey proved to be a drummer uniquely attuned to these ensembles' often lengthy compositional/improvisational hybrids. During the 2000s, he made strong contributions to albums by all three of these groups, including Science Friction's eponymous debut (2002, Screwgun) and The Sublime And (2003, Thirsty Ear), Big Satan's Souls Saved Hear (2004, Thirsty Ear) and Livein Cognito (2006, Screwgun), and Hard Cell's Live (2004, Screwgun) and Feign (2005, Screwgun). The two-CD live set The Sublime And by Science Friction stands as a high-water mark for all involved. Also noteworthy is Prezens (2007, ECM), which includes Rainey in a quartet led by guitarist David Torn, and also features Berne and Taborn from Berne's Hard Cell unit.
While it may be tempting to focus on Rainey's involvement with Tim Berne's bands during this period of the drummer's career, Rainey participated in a variety of other ensembles as well, with many fine recordings as evidence. Trio dates include Come Ahead Back (1998, Koch Jazz), New School (2001, Enja), Verbs of Will (2003, Radio Legs), Atomic Clock (2006, Radio Legs), and Strange Unison (2008, Radio Legs) by Open Loose, the sax-bass-drums threesome led by Mark Helias (another bassist with whom Rainey has had a particularly strong rapport); Short Trip (2001, Knitting Factory Works), Drip (2003, Knitting Factory Works), and Places You Go (2007, Songlines) by guitarist Brad Shepik's trio; Alive in Brooklyn (2004, Sarama) and Alive in Brooklyn, Vol. 2 (2005, Sarama) by the sax-Wurlitzer-drums trio of Tony Malaby, Angelica Sanchez, and Rainey; and Ash and Tabula (2004, Atavistic) and Downpour (2007, Victo) by the noisy soundscape-exploring outfit of Rainey, guitarist Nels Cline, and multi-instrumentalist Andrea Parkins.
With three decades of performing and recording experience in collaborative ensembles or groups led by others, Rainey finally entered the bandleading ranks with the formation of the Tom Rainey Trio in the late 2000s. Comprising Rainey, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and guitarist Mary Halvorson, the trio issued its debut album, Pool School, on the Clean Feed label in 2010 (the same year that Rainey and Laubrock were married), followed by sophomore outing Camino Cielo Echo on Intakt in 2012. Rainey also appeared on Intakt label recordings by three Laubrock-led ensembles: Sleepthief's eponymous debut (2008) and The Madness of Crowds (2011); Anti-House's eponymous debut (2010) and Strong Place (2013); and the Ingrid Laubrock Octet's Zürich Concert (2014). In 2014 Rainey debuted a new quintet on his third album as a leader, Obbligato (also on Intakt); a set of improvisations based on jazz standards, the album featured Rainey, Laubrock, Gress, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and pianist Kris Davis. In May of that year, Rainey embarked on a U.S. tour with Laubrock in support of And Other Desert Towns, an album of ten improvisations by the Rainey-Laubrock duo released by Relative Pitch Records.