With the sixth entry in their discography, alto saxophonist Tim Berne
offers a progress report of sorts on his band Snakeoil. The Deceptive 4 Live
collects together two cracking sets, one from a brace of appearances in NYC in 2009/2010 before Berne had even settled on the group name, and the other a latter-day outing from New Haven's esteemed Firehouse 12 in 2017. Testament to both sufficient challenge in the scripts and sufficient sustaining work for the band, the cast remains unchanged with clarinetist Oscar Noriega
, pianist Matt Mitchell
and drummer Ches Smith
Berne's music tends to the long form. Most of the cuts are in excess of 15 minutes, some lengthier still, full of interlocking sections, juxtaposed layers and overlapping episodes. Berne stitches together varied, sometimes contrasting themes and melodies to create pieces which veer from impressionistic mystery, to chamber poise, to unvarnished gut punch. Especially characteristic are his undulating phrases which when insistently repeated for long enough function as locomotive riffs. Live performance lends a raw edge to the renditions of pieces, many of which surface in altered guise on the band's studio releases.
Unsurprisingly, Berne's writing for the group has become even more sophisticated over time, as he has discerned the unit's flair for making the complex seem natural. In the liner notes, Berne says that Mitchell is the glue that holds the band together. Graphic confirmation of that assertion arrives during the dizzying "Perception." It follows a standout Berne solo, where his horn multiphonics reach siren intensity spiked by Smith's roiling drums. Mitchell and Noriega enter playing a continuous vamp, to which Berne gradually aligns himself as he winds down, before he pitches a counter line which Mitchell doubles. But get this, he's still pursuing the simultaneous unison with Noriega. He adds heft and depth to both. It's a talent which Berne exploits to the full in other pieces too.
The arrangements, and band, are already tight even on the early concerts. Mitchell furnishes the structural elements a bassist might cover, so the absence goes unmissed. The result is a distinctive spaciousness, though paradoxically the music can be unquestionably dense. When Berne's astringent alto interweaves with Noriega's full-toned clarinets, it forms one of the outfit's signature sounds. They combine splendidly on the dark and mysterious "Spare/Citta," a conjunction of "Spare Parts" and "Simple City," which is how they subsequently appeared on the band's eponymous debut (ECM, 2012), as well as on the previously unissued "Hemphill," built around what Berne calls "long melodic lines with two part harmony."
By the later show, Berne is making even more effective use of the components at his disposal. Smith has come into his own, versatile and multifaceted, contributing colors and textures with vibes, gongs and assorted devices, as well as stoking the fires when needed. Noriega likewise provides light and shade, as well as acting as a counterbalance to the leader, evidenced yet again as his whickering bass clarinet yowl embraces Berne's anthemic refrain on "Moornoats" (which materializes as "Rolo" on The Fantastic Mrs. 10
(Intakt, 2020)). The unreleased "Deception" constitutes yet another highlight, with Smith and Mitchell's tumultuous intersection particularly notable, before ending in an explosion of driving intensity, which elicits deserved applause.
Whatever the era, Snakeoil's music comes rammed with event, drama and invention.
CD1: Perception; Moornoats; Seven; Deception. CD2: OCDC; Spare/Citta; Scanners; Hemphill.