Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM 2443)

You've Been Watching Me

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil
You’ve Been Watching Me

Tim Berne alto saxophone
Oscar Noriega clarinet, bass clarinet
Matt Mitchell piano and electronics
Ryan Ferreira electric and acoustic guitars
Ches Smith drums, vibraphone, percussion, timpani
Recorded December 2014 at “The Clubhouse” in Rhinebeck, NY
Engineer: D. James Goodwin
Assistant: Bella Blasko
Mastering at MSM Studios by Christoph Stickel
Produced by David Torn

Alto saxophonist Tim Berne and his Snakeoil outfit stand poised and ready to strike on their third ECM excursion. You’ve Been Watching Me might just as well be titled “You’ve Been Listening To Me,” because it’s impossible to have wandered into Berne’s unmistakable ghost towns and not swear you’ve heard every poker game that went down in their saloons. As if the band weren’t tetrahedral enough, Berne welcomes guitarist Ryan Ferreira to his honed nexus of clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell (who also provides electronics), and drummer-percussionist extraordinaire Ches Smith. In this album’s press release, Berne speaks of Ferreira’s presence as “subtraction by addition,” and these musicians’ ability to open their sound by virtue of greater number speaks to the intuitiveness of this apparent contradiction. Producer David Torn, known to ECM fans for his own incendiary trips, further notes the role of space in the band’s improvisational purview.


In the latter vein, “Small World In A Small Town” opens Snakeoil’s postmodern borders to the possibility of transcendence. The late-night balladry of Berne and Mitchell forms a double helix that is equal parts playoff and championship before vibraphone and electric guitar place their thematic bets. Yet what begins in typical Berne territory soon veers skyward as verdant cymbals and sustained pianism ride a wave of panning satellite transmissions. Noriega’s clarinet pulls weeds as if from below, leaving room for Berne to sprout in their place some of his most beautiful playing on record. In return, Noriega draws a bow from klezmer strands and nocks an arrow of river water before letting it fly in slow motion into an originary cushion. The band rises like a golem, overrunning its cup with maxed-out levels of intensity.

Before taking that space walk, we start out with the recognizably jagged cohesions of “Lost In Redding.” Ferreira’s firewall of distortion is noticeable from the outset and gives the other instruments an indelible point of reference. Guitar and bass clarinet find each other in the swarm just as the band leaves them hanging like solars in desperate absence of systems. Multi-phonic squeals from the two reedmen and Ferreira’s crisp unraveling send a newborn piano out on its stumbling legs, gaining uprightness like a foal on the outside. Berne and Noriega find tenderness in the poignant “Embraceable Me,” which opens a direct line of communication between the listener and the listened. This irons itself out into a resonant space of timpani, piano, and edge-worn clarinet, while Ferreira goes splashing through martial orbits.

Much of what follows is fragmentary or, as one title would have it, “Semi-Self Detached.” The latter tune’s hazy flotation marries alto to echo until Ferreira unsolders the seams of time, thus unleashing Berne’s anti-tirade like the electricity from King Humpty Dumpty’s cracked sun. The compact yet strangely gradual “Angles” is the yolk within, just at the brink of rupture, while the title track, a through-composed refraction for solo acoustic guitar, diffuses the white around it. At the end of the tunnel we find the roller-coaster ladders and cinematic desiderata of “False Impressions,” another prime space for Ferreira seen through the darker glasses of vibraphone and alto.

One may speak of great jazzmen as evolving before our very ears with each successive release, but Berne’s case is a living example of an artist involving with age: not scaling an impossible mountain of ideals but boring through it to see how people live on the other side. What he returns with is something like jazz times ten, an advancement of such integral proportions that it might set your cells to stun. A phenomenal album, and Snakeoil’s highest proof mash so far.

(To hear samples of You’ve Been Watching Me, click here.)

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