Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Incidentals (2017)

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Feature photo: Wes Orshosky

Last time we took a hard look at a new Tim Berne release, he had made a second record with his latest/greatest adventure, his Snakeoil quartet. The quartet soon afterwards grew into a quintet when Berne brought on board a guitarist, Ryan Ferreira, and the expanded Snakeoil made You’ve Been Watching Me (2015) together, also enlisting David Torn to produce it (ECM boss Manfred Eicher was at the controls for Snakeoil’s first album). Incidentals, out on September 8, 2017 from ECM Records is further exploration of these two incremental but key additions to Berne’s Snakeoil concept.

Ferreira’s arrival came as the original setup led by Berne’s alto saxophone and joined by Oscar Noriega (clarinets), Ches Smith (drums, percussion, vibraphone, timpani) and Matt Mitchell (piano, electronics) had developed the kind of affinity that comes with time, especially when some time is needed to fully exploit Berne’s kaleidoscopic material. His blurring of the lines between preconceived and spontaneity, harmony and rhythm, are concepts he’s mastered at the side of his old mentor Julius Hemphill and soaking in the mind-expanding free forms of the AACM pioneers. His restlessness in refreshing and building upon ideas logically led him to tweak the Snakeoil concept long before he could bleed it dry.

What Ferreira brings is not so much a new soloist than an additional sonic sculptor, another performer to react and to cause reactions. He doesn’t play to a style of music (though the acerbic tones sometimes suggests rock), he’s playing to the ensemble and the compositions…like everyone else. Torn isn’t necessarily a better producer than Eicher but his style is a better match for the Berne/Snakeoil vision. More provocative — and deft use of electronic effects — places Berne’s music in a space that’s neither firmly acoustic nor electric, and the ambiguity only adds to the mystical quality of the product.

Indeed, Torn’s ghostly sonic backdrop is the first thing that becomes apparent on “Hora Feliz,” as the band quietly ushers itself in. Mitchell’s cascading lines spring out from this uneasiness as does Smith’s vibraphone. But that’s just the four-minute intro: the quintet launches into one of Berne’s accustomed blooming of competing, angular and rhythmic harmonic threads where each complex component form a piece of an even denser melody. That presages Berne’s and Noriega’s extended run of sax and clarinet statements but listen below and you’ll find Mitchell driving this thing with Smith as his partner in crime. Though Berne’s songs typically end up in spots altogether different from where they started, someone is needed to get them to their ultimate destination and thanks to Mitchell’s suggestive improvising, they stick the landing. Ferreira’s fuzz tones mates with Berne’s alto sax and Smith’s vibes on “Stingray Shuffle,” in another knotty progression of notes that soon breaks down into spacious, protean group improv.

“Sideshow” begins meekly enough, with Mitchell doling out a Berne harmonic theme first with his left hand and a complementary counterpoint with the right hand. Then the rest of the band enjoins his left hand at a different interval and the twenty-six minute odyssey ensues. Actually part of an two-part, hour long performance, “Sideshow” is too faceted to adequately document here, but there’s plenty of Berne’s charted parts colliding with band-wide ad hoc explorations, and the tube-y sound of Ferreira’s guitar delivers on the that extra harmonic dimension that Berne had envisioned for him, deepening the mystery of the sound and adding to its heft. Torn plays a large part with a couple of atmospheric passages and later a guitar cameo by him where his caustic wails get swallowed up by a Berne/Noriega pattern and Smith’s increasingly agitated timpani. Smith might be the key performer overall; in addition to the timpani, he’s called upon to invariably provide drums and vibraphone, lending to a perception that a much larger band is at work here.

In another counterintuitive move, Smith sticks to the vibes to launch the very metrical “Incidentals Contact” and Berne rightly allows the strong individual personalities on board to compensate for the lack of drums. When Smith does sit down behind his trap kit, it gives the song a second wind and when the smoke clears from that smoldering section, Noriega’s bass clarinet cries with the urgency Eric Dolphy used to put into that sort of reed.

The group goes for textural lightness on the floating and empyral “Prelude One/Sequel Too,” where Torn’s celestial production flourishes become a sixth member of the band. Never staying put, the aerial presence of “Prelude One” turn into the contained fury of “Sequel Too,” punctuated throughout by Mitchell’s muscular chords.

Though the Snakeoil band lives and thrives dangerously, Incidentals never goes off the rails; there’s a constant sense of surprise but coupled with a sense of purpose. It all begins with the palpable trust that Tim Berne invests into his band members.

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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