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Tim Berne's Snakeoil: Incidentals

Karl Ackermann By

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Of the formal Tim Berne groups dating back to his 1990s Caos Totale, only his Bloodcount formation has a larger output than Snakeoil. From its 2012 self-titled ECM debut, four of its five releases have been on the ECM label, with only the limited edition Spare (2015) appearing on Berne's Screwgun imprint. Incidentals continues Berne's experimentation in expanding aural soundscapes, bringing the alto saxophonist/composer to a wider audience without compromising his unique approach.

The group functioned as a quartet on its debut and subsequent Shadow Man (2013). With the release of 2015's You've Been Watching Me, guitarist Ryan Ferreira joined clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith. Guitarist David Torn, who recorded with Berne on his own ECM outing, Prezens (2007) has produced this and the previous two Snakeoil albums, and also plays on two tracks here.

The five compositions were penned by Berne with the exception of "Prelude One/Sequel Too," where he shares writing credits with Mitchell. "Hora Feliz" opens darkly, with low reeds and Mitchell's restrained piano hanging in the ether until Smith, almost imperceptively, picks up the pace and the playing becomes more free and open. "Stingray Shuffle" hints at classicism early on, descending into controlled chaos later. "Sideshow" is a twenty-six-minute magnum opus of intricacy with dramatic changes in dynamics, multiple textures, and interwoven degrees of intensity. Smith smoothly guides the transitions, culminating with Torn's guitar coming into the process as the piece draws to a vivid close. "Incidentals Contact" is more abstract and raucous than the previous pieces and features stand-out contributions from Mitchell and Noriega. "Prelude One/Sequel Too" opens with off-kilter melancholia but builds in strength, only to return for a contemplative close.

From the outset, Berne's Snakeoil albums have refuted the notion of the broad-brush typecasting of ECM's stable of artists. The composer continues to juggle fresh, often poignant lyricism with melodies built on rhythm and wide-open playing. Long ago surpassing his mentor Julius Hemphill, Berne has been furthering the late saxophonist's technique and taking his own compositional skills to progressively higher levels. In Snakeoil he has found a perfect formation, where traditional solos are minimized and group dynamics dictate the sound. Just as could be said with each preceding Snakeoil release, Incidentals is the group's best release to date.

Track Listing: Hora Feliz; Stingray Shuffle; Sideshow; Incidentals Contact; Prelude One/Sequel Too.

Personnel: Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Oscar Noriega: clarinet, bass clarinet; Ryan Ferreira: guitars; Matt Mitchell: piano, electronics; Ches Smith: drums, vibraphone, timpani, percussion; David Torn: guitar (1, 3).

Title: Incidentals | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: ECM Records


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