The best jazz musicians have always struck the right balance between composition and improvisation, and Tim Berne is one of the very best of the best at that. On Shadow Man, he’s still refining that skill, getting so close to perfection.
This is just the second Snakeoil album, but Berne is already moving on from that highly regarded first one. As before, Berne on his original alto sax is joined by Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith on drums, percussion and, now, vibes.
The progression between the last album and this one comes from how these performances were recorded. You see, Berne’s extensive catalog is loaded with live recordings, because capturing the freewheeling essence of a concert is important to him. Meanwhile, Berne writes some pretty opaque songs, and, in his own words, “the writing…often gets lost in a live setting.” Thus, he and his troupe trekked up to the Clubhouse in upstate New York to cut a record in single takes capturing the band playing on their toes with the clarity and purity of a studio recording. This time, the production chores were handled by Berne and his Prezens partner, guitarist and master texturalist David Torn.
Berne songs have a signature to them. They’re both cerebral and instinctive; heavily constructed and loosely played. These Berne motifs don’t make up the entire songs, they serve as themes and touch points that provide framework around which collective improv can happen. So it goes for Shadow Man, but in order to bring more transparency in his compositions, musicians are often paired off into duets within songs. We encounter some engaging, telepathic duos between Berne and Mitchell for much of “Static,” and all of the Paul Motian tune “Psalm,” where Berne takes just the lonesome spirit of the song and crafts his own story around it. Mitchell and Noriega can be heard breaking off to ruminate undisturbed on “Socket.”
Smith plays a crucial role in this; he seems to be directing changes in the very fluid temperament of these performances, knowing when it’s time to back out to let these one-on-ones occur and also when to switch to vibes and back again behind the drum kit. Moreover, his vibes adds yet another dimension to the insidious harmonics of Berne’s band. As Mitchell introduces “Son Of Not So Sure” on his own, Smith’s soothing but ghostly vibraphone eases the transition into the full band, which finds him transitioned over to his familiar drums. He leads a thunderous groove on “Socket” before the other three fade out so he can put his diverse percussion background, especially Caribbean percussion, on display.
Noriega’s clarinet makes a great companion to Berne’s alto sax, and he has some fine moments going toe-to-toe with the leader during “Static” and with his own sometimes aching/sometimes cantankerous bass clarinet during “Socket.” Mitchell has been the main guy the horn players look to for supporting their solo flights but he gets plenty of his own licks in, especially in tandem with Berne as “Socket” draws to a close and an imposing turn in the middle of “Cornered (Duck).”
Berne himself is in fine form, meting out a commanding, emotional solo on “Static,” a fiery sermon on “OC/DC” and a gut-wrenching solo at the end of “Cornered (Duck”). He leaves it all on the studio floor as the episodic, twenty-three minute “OC/DC” moves to its climax and descending chords from Mitchell swirl around him.
Starting another band and signing with ECM indicated a new direction for Tim Berne, but it’s Shadow Man where the tone of this chapter in his career is definitively established. It can be regarded as a meeting in the middle between Berne and ECM. More precisely, it’s taking the best of ECM — the legion attention to perfectly capturing a performance — and combining the best of Berne — his spontaneity within the parameters of his esoteric compositions. If you thought Snakeoil was pretty good, wait ’till you get a load of the follow-up.
Shadow Man will go on sale September 30, by ECM Records. Here are Tim Berne’s Snakeoil’s upcoming tour dates:
October 9 – Washington, DC at Atlas Performing Arts Center
October 10 – Baltimore, MD at Windup Space
October 11 – New Haven, CT at Firehouse 12
October 14 – Harrisonburg, VA at James Madison University
October 15 – Philadelphia, PA at Philadelphia Art Alliance
October 16 – New York, NY at Jazz Standard
October 19 – Chicago, IL at Constellation
January 26, 2014 – Buffalo, NY at Albright-Knox Gallery