Snakeoil (ECM)

Tim Berne

Released January 2012

JazzTimes Top 10 Albums of 2012




Incidentals is the fourth ECM album from alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s dynamic Snakeoil band. Complete and self-contained, it can also be considered a partner volume to the 2015 release You’ve Been Watching Me, further documenting a period in the band’s life in which the energetic core group of Berne, fellow reedman Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer/percussionist/vibraphonist Ches Smith was augmented by guitarist Ryan Ferreira, whose textural playing and floating, ambient sound-colours both thickened the plot and leavened the density.
“We somehow achieved more sonic space by adding another player,” Berne notes wonderingly. Ferreira had been introduced to Berne by Matt Mitchell, guitarist and pianist having attended the same music school. “I’m always on the lookout for guitar players”, says Berne, “always looking for new blood.” He and Ferreira played duo for about a year, improvising freely, before the guitarist was invited to join a Snakeoil concert. “I gave him a great pile of music, and he learned it. The job required a player who was content not to be a soloist. It was almost like having a far-out keyboard player in the band, and it gave me a few more options, compositionally.” There was also a wish to subvert and challenge the modus operandi of the group. Over several years, the four piece Snakeoil had become very tight, “and when something starts to work well I like to throw something else in, to see if I still have the touch, and just to see what happens.”

However, the first guitar sounds heard on Incidentals derive from another source, as producer David Torn’s hands-on approach to the work extends to picking up his own instrument. Thereafter, things happen fast. Group improvisation leads towards a dramatic first theme, then into and out of vamps, until the listener is left, as is often the case with Berne pieces, in a new and unfamiliar space. Recapitulation is rare in his tunes: the music keeps on moving, dodging, swerving to other destinations. To follow the action in “Hora Feliz”, Berne recommends zooming in on Snakeoil’s prodigiously gifted pianist, Matt Mitchell: “A lot of the transitions are on Matt’s shoulders. If you focus on him through the whole improv section here you can hear the amazing way he manages to develop and set up the ending of the piece with his improvising.
“I’ve always liked the idea of steering people away from the material we start with. With the writing, it’s almost done the way I improvise – a lot of motives, a lot of melodic improvising, tossing little thematic things around and developing them. That’s part of the story, anyway.
Some of that also comes from seeing the AACM guys when I was starting out, and Julius Hemphill, too – in their worlds, improvisation was often a collective and amorphous thing, rather than a rhythm section playing a groove with a solo on top of it. Very little of that music was head-solo-head format, and I think that stayed with me. A lot of the suite-like pieces I make come out of not wanting to repeat improvising ideas. If you’re improvising and you know you’re going to something completely different you have to think a little more compositionally than if you’re just playing a solo and going back to the same head.”

The trajectory of the 26-minute epic “Sideshow” – with another guitar cameo for Torn at its climax, weaving between thunderous timpani and over the twinned reeds of Noriega and Berne – all but defies itemization. Truly event-packed, it was once even more so. Originally “Sideshow” was part of an hour-long piece, the other half being “Small World In A Small Town”, already documented on You’ve Been Watching Me. Berne: “I didn’t want to use up a whole album with one large composition, so I split it in half. This was something we’d already successfully tried live, dividing the material over a couple of sets.”
Not everything in the Snakeoil book is obsessively complex. “Stingray Shuffle” begins with a composed statement which, after the head, blossoms into textural collective improvisation, subtly shifting layers of sound against which Berne and Noriega play prettily.

“Incidentals Contact” comes flying out of the starting gate, its strong rhythmic drive established by the whole ensemble while Ches Smith is still, insistently, playing vibes: “Many bands will use the drums to set up the time. I’m adamant about that not happening, ever, because it’s too obvious. Ches is really great at ignoring us as long as possible, and the more freedom you give him, the more interesting the tension gets. Quite often in this group, you’ll find everyone playing rhythm except the drummer.”
“Prelude One/Sequel Too” folds together two pieces, the first a futurist stepwise construction made stranger by the “weird high part” which Matt Mitchell contributed to the composition. After open improvisation it segues into “Sequel Too”, based upon the same written material as the title track of You’ve Been Watching Me. Interpreted as an acoustic guitar piece in its previous incarnation, “Sequel Too” sounds radically different when voiced for the group and develops as a powerful, emotionally-expressive feature for Berne’s alto and Smith’s free, slashing drums.

Tim Berne has been declared “a saxophonist and composer of granite conviction” by The New York Times. Acclaim for the first, eponymous ECM album from Berne’s quartet Snakeoil came from far and wide, with The Guardian calling it “an object lesson in balancing composition, improvisation and the tonal resources of an acoustic band.” With the release of his second ECM album, Shadow Man, All About Jazz affirmed Snakeoil as “Berne’s most impressively cohesive group yet.”
Since learning at the elbow of St. Louis master Julius Hemphill in the ’70s, the Syracuse, New York-born Berne has built an expansive discography as a leader. In his ensembles over the past few decades, he has worked with improvisers including Joey Baron, Django Bates, Jim Black, Nels Cline. Mark Dresser, Marc Ducret, Michael Formanek, Drew Gress, Ethan Iverson, Dave King, Herb Robertson, Chris Speed, Steve Swell, Bobby Previte, Hank Roberts, Tom Rainey and Craig Taborn. As a sideman, Berne has made ECM appearances on albums by Formanek (The Rub and Spare Change, Small Places, The Distance) and David Torn (prezens). The New York Times summed him up by saying: “Few musicians working in or around jazz over the last 30 years have developed an idiomatic signature more distinctive than Tim Berne.”

Track Listing:

1. Simple City (Tim Berne) 13:59

2. Scanners (Tim Berne) 7:24

3. Spare Parts (Tim Berne) 14:14

4. Yield (Tim Berne / Matt Mitchell) 12:10

5. Not Sure (Tim Berne) 8:43

6. Spectacle (Tim Berne) 12:02


Tim Berne: alto saxophone

Oscar Noriega: clarinet, bass clarinet

Matt Mitchell: piano

Ches Smith: drums, percussion

Recorded January, 2011, at Avatar Studios, New York

Produced by Manfred Eicher


When artists who’ve already built lengthy careers elsewhere over a period of years (sometimes decades) come to record for Germany’s ECM Records, there is occasional trepidation amongst some of their longstanding fans. This is, after all, not just about facilitating the release of recordings; this is a label with a vision, a very personal aesthetic. With over 1,100 titles released across more than four decades, and an expansive stylistic purview that invariably reflects Manfred Eicher’s unmistakable imprint, there’s an unsupportable myth that the label forces its own aesthetic onto the artists with whom the label head/primary producer chooses to work. With Snakeoil, his first ECM recording as a leader, alto saxophonist Tim Berne does, indeed, go places his nearly forty previous recordings don’t, but there are more than enough of his longstanding markers to support what is closer to the real truth about working with ECM. Eicher is, indeed, an active producer—a de facto added member to any group he produces—but it’s still all about collaboration, about finding that nexus where he and his artists can meet. 
That Berne has chosen not to work with any of his usual suspects from past years goes a long way to defining Snakeoil‘s distinctive place in his discography. When it was announced that Berne would be recording for ECM, it seemed a certainty that pianist Craig Taborn—who released his own ECM debut in 2011 (the impressive Avenging Angel), and with whom Berne also participated on two other sets for the label in recent years, guitarist David Torn’s Presenz(2007) and bassist Michael Formanek’s The Rub And Spare Change (2010)—would be involved. Instead, with both Science Friction and Hard Cell (the two groups in which Berne and Taborn both played) reaching end-of-life, the saxophonist’s Snakeoil only appears to represent a first meeting, the quartet having worked together as Los Totopos for the last couple of years. With Berne and clarinetist Oscar Noriega also collaborating in pianist Matt Mitchell’s Central Chain, there’s plenty of preexisting chemistry all around, made all the richer by drummer Ches Smith’s textural approach on a variety of percussion instruments, lending Snakeoil even greater breadth. 

With Berne’s own work focusing more on free improvisation in the past few years, Snakeoilsignals a welcome return to his very particular marriage of form and freedom, but what Eicher brings is even greater focus, and a certain spatial element that doesn’t stop the music from soaring to peaks of dynamics and density, albeit never at the expense of absolute transparency. Berne’s complex compositional constructs provide detailed roadmaps from which, as ever, the group is able to expand into improvisational forays that would be remarkable enough, in and of themselves, but which are all the more impressive for their almost uncanny recalibration when Berne’s knotty phrases signal a return to form. 
That Berne’s oftentimes convoluted writing breathes the way it does is the result of a confluence of factors: the saxophonist’s early experience in complex ideations, cutting his teeth with Julius Hemphill and influenced by other woodwind multi-instrumentalists/composers including Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell; the opportunity to work in a studio where more pristine conditions allow the kind of close listening that’s essential to music this complex and open-ended; Eicher’s guidance, beyond the recording process and into discrete musical details; and, of course, the shared chemistry of this quartet of remarkable players. As capable of navigating almost unfathomable charts as they are an unfettered freedom of expression that oftentimes borders on restraint yet never feels confined by it, Noriega, Mitchell and Berne intersect with absolute simpatico, bolstered by Smith’s unpredictable colorations ranging from timpani to gongs, while never overstating, overstaying or overplaying.
Snakeoil‘s greatest magic—not entirely new to longstanding fans, but still providing plenty of cause to pause for even the most fervent Berne completists—is how Berne’s undeniably rigorous writing manages to retain the loose interpretive feel that’s prerequisite to giving his group the freedom to shape it into something that extends far beyond the written page. The interlocking parts that gradually coalesce over the course of the first five minutes of the opening “Simple City” are anything but simple, as Mitchell moves from an introductory engagement with Smith that gradually leads to Berne’s first solo of the set, the trio gradually building over shifting piano arpeggios until a sudden rallying to even greater form as Noriega joins in on bass clarinet, doubling Mitchell’s lines so precisely as to create a single, nearly indistinguishable voice. Noriega then takes an extended duet with Mitchell—the two just as uncannily attuned in dynamics and space, with the sparest of support from Smith—going to places so quiet, of such rarified pointillism, that following a brief drum and piano duo, the return of a conjoined theme by Berne and Noriega emerges as a remarkably seamless transition back to form. And that’s just the first of six Berne compositions on Snakeoil that range anywhere from seven to fourteen minutes. 
The balance of Snakeoil is just as unpredictable and fresh. Throughout, the darker sections—whether they’re improvised, scripted or, as is so often the case, simultaneously both and neither—the completely improvised passages are often indistinguishable from the scored parts, and vice versa. 
That Berne and his group succeed in creating a context where freedom to coexist in such particularly seamless confluence makes Snakeoil a milestone in the saxophonist’s career. The virtuosity of the quartet is never in question, and yet there’s a refreshing lack of posturing and an “egos at the door” service to the music. Like pianist Marilyn Crispell—another left-of-center artist who has come to the label and successfully combined preexisting markers of an admittedly more expressionistic bent with newfound lucency—Snakeoil represents an undeniable shift for Berne. Still, when compared with earlier recordings like The Shell Game(Thirsty Ear, 2000) and Science Friction (Screwgun, 2002), Snakeoil represents a reinvented modus operandi that, in collaboration with Eicher, introduces even great focused specificity and a synchronous new group in what will hopefully be the start of a long and fruitful relationship with ECM Records. 

John Kelman (All About Jazz)