A new album from New York saxophonist and composer Tim Berne is always big news at Dalston Sound, and his latest, titled for his new quartet, Snakeoil, ends a run of recordings as a sideman.
Somehow, with around 30 Berne albums already on my shelves (so no, I don’t have them all), it seems there’s still not enough Tim Berne in my life. He manages to produce something fresh for each new outing and Snakeoil is no exception, contrasting vividly with the sound of his previous offering, The Veil, a live outing with Jim Black and Nels Cline as BB&C.
Tim Berne – Snakeoil (ECM)
Tim Berne might not seem the most likely ECM artist. His playing can be pungent, and his music altogether too raw for some – the late 90s productions on his own Screwgun label emphasized those qualities. But Berne’s music for his new Snakeoil quartet is more than usually refined, and the rendition of it here is a model of clarity. I’d go as far as to say that Snakeoil has bought out the best in Manfred Eicher’s ECM house production style.
That said, a track like “Simple City” sees Berne compositionally re-mapping his interlocking compositional structures to ECM’s terroir. Matt Mitchell’s acoustic piano gently unfurls a melody punctuated by Ches Smith’s percussive stippling, and Berne’s alto then traces the contours, shadowed by Oscar Noriega’s clarinet.
The chamber quartet format recasts Berne’s music in radical ways. Whereas Craig Taborn’s switch from electric keyboards to acoustic piano on Feign (Screwgun, 2005) shifted the emphases and stress points in Berne’s music for the Hardcell trio, it didn’t radically alter its DNA. Snakeoil is different. The all-acoustic setup allows a delicacy into the music: witness the lovely way in which Berne insinuates his alto into the bass clarinet trio that gets “Spare Parts” underway, or the spun piano/percussion duet near its ending.
But Berne’s authorial ‘voice’ is immutable and comfortingly familiar, never more so than when he unravels the more characteristically knotty post-bop numbers such as “Scanners” with the sinuous, propulsive undulation of – yes – a snake (a simile which has never occurred to me before, though it’s always been available).
BB&C – The Veil (Cryptogramofone)
This album, released last year but recorded live in New York in 2009, casts Berne in quite a different light. Recorded with electric guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Jim Black, it’s closer to the spirit of Berne’s earlier collaboration with David Torn on the producer/guitarist’s Prezens (ECM, 2011) than to Snakeoil, albeit minus the studio trickery, and no doubt Cline’s co-production here did much to define the album’s sound.
Jim Black’s bruising stomp on set opener “Railroaded” is the antithesis of Ches Smith’s deft coloration with recourse to tympani and congas on Snakeoil, and the following “Impairment Posse” has a lumbering free-funk gait that positively invites Cline’s electric strafing, developing for all the brevity of its three and a half minutes a pell-mell momentum towards a sludgy climax. “Momento” then blends the sonorities of laptop and electronics with Berne’s forced-air reeds into an aeriform, subfusc haze.
But there’s nary a pause for breath here. “The Barbarella Syndrome” moves from postbop to crushing Metal intensity. Jim Black, who so artfully bridges the rock and jazz schools of drumming with his own band, Alasnoaxis, whips up a ferocious martial barrage that Cline reinforces with coruscating blankets of guitar FX. When it peaks, Berne’s alto is left spiraling in the updraft. At times the trio is accompanied by a phantom electric bassist; either Black’s live processing or Cline’s effects, though both men seem too busy to have even one hand free between them.
The trio does occasionally ease back to explore more subtle lines of inquiry. Cline plays some yearning sustains at the heart of “The Dawn of the Lawn” that seem to signal a sea-change, and the trio work at mid-tempo through the relatively conventional melodic development of “Rescue Her”. But then a consensus stoking of intensity triggers a gallop to a scabrous conclusion, spurred on by a grinding guitar riff and Berne’s keening sax.
The title track is a bruised, reflective interlude that sees the trio at their most gentle. And finally, on the long, two-part “Tiny Moment”, the band blends their most excoriating and their most tender impulses in a series of changes that culminate in a finale that holds raw power and ambience in balance with a hint of the epic.