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Tim Berne: Snakeoil

Karl Ackermann By

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Tim Berne's previous contributions on the ECM label—guitarist David Torn's Prezens (ECM, 2005) and bassist Michael Formanek's The Rub and Spare Change (ECM, 2009)—represent some of his best work as a sideman. The alto saxophonist's first ECM release as a leader, Snakeoil, not only represents Berne at his best, but also at his most accessible. Berne's quartet consists of outstanding players from the New York jazz scene, all of whom are attuned to Berne's complex free improvisational style of composing.

The thirteen-minute opener, "Simple City," is relatively tranquil compared to a piece that might have been at home on a Bloodcount or Caos Totale recording. That is not to say that the piece is predictable or lacks intricacy; it is simply more focused on its harmonic core without sacrificing spontaneity. Berne and clarinetist Oscar Noriega trade off impressively from the outset—also somewhat atypical, with greater emphasis, on other Berne recordings, on ensemble playing.

"Scanners," however, begins Snakeoil's transition into purer improvisational territory early on, with drummer Ches Smith incorporating gongs, congas and tympani to broaden the percussive landscape and hold the constantly shifting tempos together. The more overtly free "Spare Parts" serves as segue into Snakeoil's increasingly fiery second half. Pianist Matt Mitchell takes advantage of the opportunity to display his rhythmic power and angular style on "Yield," which he co-wrote with Berne. The two closing pieces—"Not Sure" and "Spectacle"—find the quartet immersed in uneven meters, with the players meeting up and breaking away at rapid intervals.

Berne's approach to improvisation isn't to internalize his creativity so that it becomes a private matter, beyond scrutiny. While he has never sought to explain himself musically, his blend of structure and abandon doesn't dispose of familiar themes altogether. It therefore leaves his music more open to individual interpretation. Berne is one of the most forward thinking and fearless composers in jazz and Snakeoil is unquestionably amongst his best recordings.

Track Listing: Simple City; Scanners; Spare Parts; Yield; Not Sure; Spectacle.

Personnel: Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Oscar Noriega: clarinet, bass clarinet; Matt Mitchell: piano; Ches Smith: drums, percussion.

Title: Snakeoil | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: ECM Records


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