Tim Berne: Snakeoil (ECM 2234)

Tim Berne

Tim Berne alto saxophone
Oscar Noriega B♭ and bass clarinets
Matt Mitchell piano
Ches Smith drums; percussion
Recorded January 10/11 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

New York altoist Tim Berne makes his ECM debut as leader with an unorthodox quartet featuring clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith. Although he has been recording for almost as long as I’ve been alive, I’m fortunate to discover his craft in the ECM realm, where his distinctive balance of scripted and unscripted bodywork spreads far in producer Manfred Eicher’s intuitive acoustics. To be sure, the background is fascinating in and of itself, yet how much less so when pitted against the music that comes out of it.

The absence of bass in this latest group allows the development to breathe, and indeed the piano intro of “Simple City” takes in the session’s deepest breath and exhales throughout its remainder. In this music box of fitful dreams, Berne’s popping horn flows onto the scene like a gymnast’s ribbon. A shared essence of fear and ecstasy caresses every spring and key as if it were the last drop of rain to fall from a storm. We follow this drop in heavy pathos, hear it as it hits an upturned bell in a song all its own. Noriega reveals new images, interlocking with his partners in crime to form a graphic novelist’s portrait of life. Thunderous drums bubble up in lava, shooting out a pianistic steam of resolution. And all of this in the first cut? You bet.

Berne & Co. explore a range of emotional states from here on out. Starting with the vividly contemporary energy of “Scanners,” they evoke shopping malls and checkout lines, funneling into a fantastic solo from our district manager, as it were, and stowing away the bane of quotidian decisions in a dark, hidden storeroom. Each of the “Spare Parts” that follow is a potion never swallowed, touched only on the lips like wings to water. Some gorgeous crosstalk between the two reeds sets off a checkered unity with Mitchell and chain of gongs from Smith, calling like a trolley bell in the streets. There we are asked to “Yield,” spinning secrets from truths (and vice versa) and sidewinding into “Not Sure.” Despite the tactics that bring us here, the music keeps its feet above ground and head below cloud, so that by the time we get to the “Spectacle” we can bask in Mitchell’s sparkle as the group unrolls ecstatic cause like a carpet on which to shun and shiver in a final kowtow.

This is fresh, think-out-loud jazz that is understood to be itself and nothing more. It raises its tongue to the roof of its mouth, avoiding the cheek at all costs. You’ll find no title track on Snakeoil, and with good reason. It’s sincere to the core.

Samples can be found here, but approach them with caution. This is a record to be savored in its entirety.

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