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Snakeoil by Tim Berne

Since the 1980s recordings Fulton Street Maul and Sanctified Dreams for mainstream Columbia Records, New York City alto saxophonist Tim Berne has carved an iconic career as a non-conforming pioneer of the 'new' jazz. A prominent exponent of New York City's trailblazing downtown scene, Berne's numerous alliances, high-impact solo outings and legendary Bloodcount band, featuring fellow woodwind ace Chris Speed, paint a picture of innovation. His work with French guitar stylist Marc Ducret and global presence, consisting of alliances with young upstarts, and proven improvising warriors loom as a continuing saga paralleling his incessant creative sparks.

With Berne's first studio outing in eight years, he opts for a bass-less quartet foundation that intimates a pristine soundscape, rooted in an open-forum with a standard rhythm section. Here, clarinetist Oscar Noriega blossoms as a strong foil, where peaceful environs often ascend into sprawling movements divided between a layered and semi-structured climate, often devised with linear progressions and hearty improvisational sequences.

The quartet's multidimensional fabrics present a throng of sterling contrasts, steeped in quirky horns deviations and offbeat unison notes, sparked by Berne and Noriega's popping lines and sinewy choruses. These attributes come to the forefront on "Scanners" for example, as the band meticulously climbs towards a zenith via thorny motifs, abetted by the frontline's cunning counter-maneuvers and offsetting tradeoffs. Coupled with free expressionism and Matt Mitchell's trickling piano voicings; drummer Ches Smith's polyrhythmic rolls and Noriega's yearning lines during the bridge establish a framework that intimates a spiritual accounting of sorts.

"Yield," is a piece that appropriately frames an ominous undercurrent as the hornists' succinct theme-building forays are subliminally steered by Mitchell's delicate chord clusters and dainty single note runs. Disparity and multiple viewpoints might infer that the listener should proceed with caution, partly due to Berne's soul-stirring breakouts, tinted with a search and conquer modus operandi as he drives it all home in customary fashion.

Many of Berne's trademark theme-construction tactics remain intact. With deceptive and snaky developments he often zooms in for the kill, but also tenders a soft side within the buoyantly moving parts. Snakeoil offers a kaleidoscopic portraiture where lucid imagery, spanning temperance and a variety of thought-provoking persuasions -- unified with ravaging assaults -- attain an uncanny equilibrium. And the broad sound-sculptures in concert with ECM Records' fabled sound engineering aesthetic presents supplementary rewards.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Tim Berne
  • CD Title: Snakeoil
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2012
  • Record Label: ECM Records
  • Musicians: Tim Berne (alto saxophone), Oscar Noriega (B♭ and bass clarinets), Matt Mitchell (piano), Ches Smith (drums, percussion)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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