Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: Incidentals (ECM 2579)

Incidentals

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil
Incidentals

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.)

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.

TBS

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.)

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.)

Tim Berne: Snakeoil (ECM 2234)

Tim Berne
Snakeoil

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.