Tim Berne’s Snakeoil
Tim Berne alto saxophone
Oscar Noriega clarinet, bass clarinet
Ryan Ferreira electric guitar
Matt Mitchell piano, electronics
Ches Smith drums, vibes, percussion, timpani
David Torn guitar (tracks 1 & 5)
Recorded December 2014 at “The Clubhouse” in Rhinebeck, NY
Engineer: D. James Goodwin
Assistant: Bella Blasko
Mastering at MSM Studios, München by Christoph Stickel
Produced by David Torn
U.S. release date: September 8, 2017
French philosopher Roland Barthes once faulted music criticism for relying on adjectives. The music of Snakeoil is such that adjectives do leave much to be desired. In that spirit, purged at the outset are choice adjectives that could be used to describe it: slipstream, epic, implosive, chameleonic.
For this ECM leader date, number four for Berne, the alto saxophonist reteams with clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, guitarist Ryan Ferreira and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith. In the fray is producer David Torn, contributing his guitar to two tracks. “Hora Feliz” showcases the craftsmanship of everyone involved, through which electronics nestle against acoustics as mountains meet sky. Torn sets the scene before the theme jumps into frame. Such awakening, a Berne staple, keeps listeners in check. As the interconnectedness and independence alike of these musicians develop, one comes to see shadow and light in Snakeoil not as opposites but as twins.
Smith is a wonder. He lends no credence to grooves, taking his time, as in “Incidentals Contact,” to mark a beat, thereby furnishing Noriega with a fulcrum. He extemporizes at the margins while Noriega flaps his wings with abandon. “Stingray Shuffle” is another metropolis of sound, which, like “Prelude One/Sequel Too” (the album’s closer), keeps Ferreira’s fire in play around a reverie of higher notes before Berne commands his way to the finish line. But it’s “Sideshow” that gives us the goods and then some. Being the conclusion to a piece that began with “Small World In A Small Town” on this album’s predecessor, You’ve Been Watching Me, it has a past from which to draw. Mitchell does most of the lifting throughout its 26 minutes, responding as much as anticipating. Poetry shares breath with prose at every turn. Whether in Noriega’s sensitivity or Berne’s physicality, Smith’s blast of timpani or Ferreira’s finesse, the band demonstrates the ability of jazz to open doors you never knew existed. The truth of mastery lives on.
(This review originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)