Tim Berne – Snakeoil – ECM 2234, 68:32 ****:
(Tim Berne – alto saxophone; Oscar Noriega – clarinet, bass clarinet; Matt Mitchell – piano; Ches Smith – drums, percussion; Manfred Eicher – producer)
Despite alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s lengthy and deep discography, both new and long-term fans can always discover something satisfyingly transformative about each Berne venture. The 68-minute, six-track Snakeoil is no exception. This album marks Berne’s debut as a leader on ECM: he previously contributed to two other ECM releases, David Torn’s Prezens in 2007 and Michael Formanek’s The Rub and the Spare Change in 2010. This outing also introduces Berne’s latest quartet. The saxophonist is joined by Oscar Noriega (bass clarinet and clarinet); pianist Matt Mitchell (who heads the sextet Central Chain, which also includes Berne and Noriega); and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith (who spearheads the band These Arches: Berne is also a member). Snakeoil also celebrates Berne’s return to the studio after an eight-year hiatus, although he’s been busy issuing live performances on his own label, Screwgun, as well as participating in numerous other musical ensembles.
Snakeoil contains the melodic complexity and fluid rhythms typical of Berne’s earlier endeavors and is an example of the fusion of spontaneity and pre-composed music. Every piece (which range from just over 14 minutes to 7 1/2 minutes) has textural alterations, unexpected rhythmic shifts and expansive interplay between the musicians. It is rarely if ever clear where or when improvisation and written sections start or stop, since the parts segue, overlap and change with a seemingly effortless sense. The disciplined group’s looseness, however, is the result of two years of work-shopping and woodshedding, which was necessary for Berne to accomplish the sonic details and dynamics he wanted: this project focuses on intuitive collaboration as much as cooperative teamwork. That idea extended to the production as well. ECM founder Manfred Eicher is known as a hands-on producer, but in this case it is not his aesthetic which influences the sound (listeners may find Snakeoil the least ECM-esque album in the label’s roster). Rather, Eicher sculpted and tightened specific performance aspects and gave feedback which helped fine-tune the material.
Berne’s work is infrequently circular: unlike many jazz artists he does not end where he begins. The relatively moderate opener “Simple City” is an oblique piece which explores Berne’s penchant for going in different directions. Mitchell commences with blues-based piano chords, followed by Smith’s various percussive elements and Berne enters after three minutes, while Noriega does not insert input until nearly six minutes in. The piece transmutes but has an organized, slow-searing quality which does not discard intricacy or unpredictability. “Simple City” is a warm-up to the controlled chaos which permeates the rest of the record. The up-tempo “Scanners” (which can be streamed here) is tension-filled and percolated by a barbed lyricism. Mitchell often pounds on the higher piano keys, building transitions between the pre-designed and spur-of-the-moment segments. While Berne’s sax descends, escalates and carves out huge chunks of avant-garde nonconformity, he regularly passes responsibility to the other players to move the music and/or switch to an optional course of action.
The longest cut, the incessant “Spare Parts,” emerges as a purely free situation. Berne swaps solos and duet portions with Noriega (on bass clarinet), while the sound of the clarinet with the piano also has a noteworthy tonality which gives the track a chromatic flexibility. The sizable degree of open space throughout “Spare Parts” allows an unconstrained flow and candor which sustains a non-confrontational progression even during the most extemporaneous sections. “Spare Parts” is a demonstration that free music does not have to be jagged or anarchic. The closing 12-minute “Spectacle” is a scrutinizing voyage where Berne commits the quartet to an investigation of melody, using small-scale instances to create a larger canvas which superficially becomes undone as the group either highlights particular subtleties or sheds them for others: there is continuous adjustment and modification which eventually leads to a storm of sound and rhythm at the closure, an impression of abandonment which nevertheless has foundation. Throughout Snakeoil, Eicher’s radiant recording style encapsulates each sonic exclamation point and nuanced arc, from “Simple City’s” beginning to “Spectacle’s” end, with thorough precision. He supplies warmth and fullness without forfeiting Berne’s sense of outré adventure.
Simple City; Scanners; Spare Parts; Yield; Not Sure; Spectacle.
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