Tim Berne – Snakeoil (2012)

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Tim Berne has been such an imposing figure in New York’s improvised music scene since the 80s, it’s impossible to avoid his presence on significant recordings from that scene for too long. Over here, we’ve found ourselves noting his contributions on many of them over the last several years, including the outstanding live, extemporaneous collaboration with Jim Black and Nels Cline from last year, The Veil. But up to now, We’ve had no examination on a record solely led by this alto saxophonist himself.

Today, though, is the day Berne’s first studio album in about eight years goes on sale. Snakeoil is not just an album, but an occasion to introduce his latest band, made up of Berne, Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith on drums and percussion. Given the highly incestuous nature of the downtown NYC gang, these guys have all invariably played in each other’s bands or had been just one degree of separation apart. Berne has played in Smith’s Three Arches band alongside Andrea Parkins, Tony Malaby, and Smith’s sometimes leader, Mary Halvorson. Berne has also participated in a sextet called Central Chain, led by his former protégé Mitchell. Noriega is currently in the group Endangered Species with Blank, Chris Speed and Trevor Dunn. The Tim Berne Quartet might be new, but the associations have been long established.

Berne felt that this unit warranted him forgoing is usual inclination to record a live record with this bass-less combo under his own Screwgun label and go into the studio with them in order to make its best possible first impression. For that task, Berne called on ECM Records and asked its founder, Manfred Eicher, to produce it. What he got was a spotless production job, which is just another day at the office for Eicher, but Eicher’s guidance also provided a little more shape and formality to Berne’s loosely-formed tunes.

Not much gets lost in the process: Berne’s dogma of songs not ending “in the same way that they began,” moving from one place and ending up in a distinctly different spot, remains intact. In fact, it’s the most distinguishing feature of the album. Well, that and the stubbornly strong musical personalities of each of the members, something Berne was looking for and got with his new band. Thus, a song like the opener “Simple City” begins with Mitchell’s tentative figures, channeled into more resolute patterns by Smith’s percussions rising up alongside him, and finally by Berne’s adding a final element to mold an identifiable melody out of the song. Just as that occurs, the song abruptly shifts into another phase, and one or two more after that. It’s like going on a cruise, with the navigating done by each player taking his turn at the rudder. But not to worry, all of them are skilled navigators.

“Scanners,” (YouTube above) the short track of the bunch clocking in at a swift 7:23, reverses the plot, beginning with a sprinting, twisty melody, halting in the middle so that Noriega can uncork an impish bass clarinet solo done practically a capella. Noriega slowly re-enters and introduces a new melody, harmonized by Berne. It emerges from the haze as another serpentine ostinato that’s probably a variation on the first one.

These cuts set the template for how the other compositions flow: that “moving” from one spot to another is, after all, what largely sets Berne apart aside from his slightly quavering, human-sounding alto. Sometimes, Berne harmonizes with Noriega’s piano in a strangely pleasing way, in even more strange, it reminds me of the piano/sax harmonizing heard on Michael Brecker’s records. Along the way through these songs, there’s no lasting adherence to any style; “Spare Parts” is spare, tentatively held together by Berne’s up-and-down series of paired notes in front of a band that veers in and out of chamber jazz territory.

Appropriately the last track, “Spectacle,” which brilliantly walks the line between free and forethought, sums up best what Berne’s new band is about: improvising that doesn’t force fit into composed music; through dramatic and impulsive turns, it feels its way naturally to the melody.

Move over, Caos Totale, Bloodcount and Hard Cell. Here comes Tim Berne’s Snakeoil Quartet.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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