This band, with alto saxophonist Tim Berne backed by Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on acoustic piano, and Ches Smith drums and percussion, was active for some time before recording their recent Snakeoil album for ECM, touring under the name Los Totopos (“tortilla chips”) until Berne was threatened with (or perhaps blessed by) legal action over use of that name.
Berne has said: “I didn’t really change my approach for the (Snakeoil) recording”; yet, in rising to the challenges of his sinuous, serpentine compositions, the band definitely sounds more combative live.
I didn’t really get Berne’s joke that he’d always wanted to tell an audience “those were songs from our new album”, since his meticulous compositional method is well known. Indeed, the night got off to a delayed start because a spotlight-blinded Berne was unable to read from his sheet music for spots in his eyes. When he eventually did launch into “Not Sure”, it was with an initially halting but ultimately loquacious alto solo.
A bright, up-tempo full-group intro led to a bass clarinet trio which warmed the band up for a briskly assertive run through the main theme and a driving piano/drums duet. As the tune came to its conclusion, alto and bass clarinet played measured contrapuntal lines while Mitchell and Smith traded disruptive percussives in a higher tempo, a recurring structural device.
Mitchell began “Simple City” with a thoughtful piano solo that was teasingly étude-like in its complexity. Berne’s playing here, more moody that on record, had a bruised, introspective quality which carried over into Noriega’s clarinet part. Ches Smith dabbled by turns with a glockenspiel, hand-held metal percussion or a hanging steel coil, but when the quartet came together his strong kit drum rhythms bolstered their sinuous playing.
Although Berne would apologise for revisiting a tune also played the night before, Snakeoil ran through at least four (possibly five) of the six pieces on the new album. The first exception was “Cornered”, sourced from Berne’s recent Old And Unwise album with double bassist Bruno Chevillon. The tune’s highlights came in solos by Noriega on bass clarinet and Mitchell, which were respectively earthy and celestial (‘sparkling’ seems too fey a word), and in a ruminative piano/saxophone duet which became interrogatory with Smith’s joining.
The night’s second set began with album tracks “Scanners” and “Yield”. The former took a sprightly tumble into a knotty contrapuntal thicket, before emerging with a melody that sounded something like New Orleans jazz on fast forward (perhaps it was a touch of Noriega’s roots in ranchera showing through). After an abrupt ending, on a harsh tradeoff with Noriega, Berne commented that: “Even by my own low standards, that one was really weird”.
”Yield” derived its quality from Mitchell’s lucid soloing, which took a dark turn that imbued ensuing group passages with an unusually turbulent aspect. Much of Berne’s music is characterised by a beguiling balance of emotional neutrality and expressive earthiness, so this glimpse into its often satisfyingly turbid and cerebral depths was particularly memorable. Noriega played a superb clarinet solo over a typically persistent/cyclical Berne sax motif.
The night’s second non-album track, the only one they repeated from the night previous, was the characteristically Berne-titled “Jesus Christ Minibar”. A pugilistic affair in which Mitchell got drawn into a musical contretemps between Smith and Berne, it fell to Noriega to play the role of mediator, drawing the tempo down into an oblique, crabwise rhythm before Smiths drums insinuated a lighter, more propulsive rhythmic feel.
The last piece (I didn’t get the title) began as a wonderfully deft clarinet/piano/percussion trio. Not all of Smith’s interjections on gongs seemed apposite, but his subsequent duet with Mitchell was satisfyingly knotty and turbulent, and engendered an intensity that fed into the united group’s inquisition of the main alto sax melody.
With Berne’s move away from electrification (Craig Toborn’s Rhodes, Marc Ducret’s electric guitar), this particular combination of musicians has opened his music up somewhat, exposing revealing correspondences with some of the other saxophonists he’s professed admiration for: I’m thinking of Julius Hemphill, Roscoe Mitchell, and Henry Threadgill.
I’ve been following Berne since (I think it was) 1988, when I caught a set by his Miniature trio with Hank Roberts and Joey Baron, at a Crawley Outside In festival, and Snakeoil is one of the most rewarding vehicles for his music yet.
The previous night was recorded by the BBC for broadcast on Jazz on 3, Monday 2 April 2012.
Tim Berne – Snakeoil / BB&C – The Veil