Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: Shadow Man (ECM 2339)

Shadow Man

Time Berne’s Snakeoil
Shadow Man

Tim Berne alto saxophone
Oscar Noriega clarinet, bass clarinet
Matt Mitchell piano
Ches Smith drums, vibraphone, percussion
Recorded January 2013 at Clubhouse, New York
Engineer: Joe Branciforte
Assistant: Bella Blasko
Mixed by David Torn at Cell Labs
Produced by David Torn and Tim Berne

In the world of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, openness is the new closure. Having boomed into the ECM airspace with its self-titled debut, this band of powerhouse New Yorkers was ripe for a second coming. And in the throes of Shadow Man, it’s impossible to witness the musicians’ leaps of evolution and intuition and not be moved. We might easily throw around words like “cerebral” or “complex” to describe what’s going on here, but at the end of the way what really matters is its emotional impact, and this it possesses in spades. This is music that does more than speak to the listener; it embodies the listener.

With an average length of 12 minutes, and one track clocking in at just shy of 23, the album’s six tunes are more than that. They are living, breathing entities. The one outlier—or should I say inlier?—of the set is Paul Motian’s “Psalm,” which receives a heartfelt duo treatment from Berne and pianist Matt Mitchell. With such breadth of expression spilling from his alto (at points, one might swear it was a tenor), Berne is an ideal interpreter for this classic melody. The rest of the album is from his pen, thereby leaving us with far more dimensional puzzles to put together. Opening the occasion is “Son Of Not So Sure,” which begins in mid-utterance. The array of sounds elicited by drummer-percussionist Ches Smith is nothing to balk at. He is the creaking gate in the back yard, the window left open and the flies seeking refuge from the heat through it, the latch long untended and hanging by one last thread of the screw. Mitchell meanwhile sifts through the keys like memories and replaces them with fresh experiences. Only then does the bass clarinet of Oscar Noriega reveal its profile as Smith switches to vibraphone, calling forth some enchanting distortions. Through this, Berne and Mitchell join melodic hands in a collective reach toward the cooling stars. The stage is set.

Smith grabs more spotlight in the knottier “Static.” The mood is, of course, anything but. Noriega’s early solo on the lower reed founds Berne’s altoism, which in turn gets folded into Mitchell’s well-kneaded filo. Like some nocturne turned fierce, the tune moves with all the illusion of a Jacob’s Ladder toy—which is to say, in pursuit of the next idea with yet another already in mind—toward a strong-armed finish. Yet despite these moments of shine, the band is a well-oiled machine of which no cog is dispensable. Nowhere does this assertion hold more water than in the juggernaut “OC/DC.” A masterpiece for its length as much as for its strength, in swims through Berne’s meticulous tangle in a protracted degaussing of the proverbial screen. From the rubble of information before us, he builds a new icon, cell by cell, by which to double-click our acceptance. That the quartet dives into full-on, ecstatic control means less than it seems to say. Chaos is its mantra, because chaos fills in the gaps we are afraid to acknowledge. Mitchell on drums punches the spike, as it were, as Berne spits the sonic equivalent of an urban legend: so beguiling that it just might be true. Even when Noriega’s clarinet goes off by its lonesome for a bird’s eye view of what’s been left behind, it does this with a yearning to fall. This tune is so sharp, it can’t even handle itself without bleeding.

The 19-minute “Socket” is another evolutionary wonder. At any given moment of its passage, Berne speaks in two linear tongues, switching between them at will, while bass clarinet adds a third, internal register. Mitchell’s punctuations are liberal but on point, just as the others walk fault lines into coda. “Cornered (Duck)” tears off three minutes from the former’s duration like a chunk of taffy stretched between the two reedmen. With even greater attention to detail, the band plots its course here one angle at a time until sparkle becomes strangle.

It’s worth remarking on the album’s production, which puts Berne and David Torn at the mixing board—an unsurprising meeting of minds, given that the two appeared together on the legendary guitarist’s Prezens back in 2007. Here they have achieved the feeling of a live performance with all the lucidity of the studio. This was, in fact, Berne’s goal all along, and having seen Snakeoil perform some of these tunes live in Munich, I can attest to the validity of their capture.

There’s no such thing as the future of jazz. It’s already here.

(To hear samples of Shadow Man, click here.)

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