The first minute of the first piece on You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM), the new album by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, is a headlong contrapuntal rush, a tumble through a revolving door into a performance apparently already in full flow.
And that’s how Berne’s career has progressed and continues. He’s been an abundantly prolific recording artist since the early 80s, self-producing in the decade or so after ’97 a series of live recordings, all issued on his own Screwgun label.
Now firmly bedded in at ECM with his latest group, Berne has taken full advantage of the studio access that affords to record music that captures the intricacies of his distinctive compositional style while losing none of the music’s performative dynamism and instantaneity.
You’ve Been Watching Me is Berne’s third ECM album. It followings the Snakeoil group debut (2013) and Shadow Man (2014), which ranks among my all-time favourite albums. Like Shadow Man, You’ve Been Watching Me was recorded at a New York studio with production and mixing handled by long-term associate David Torn. Berne says: “Almost everything was nailed in one or two takes, though Torn put extra time into the mix to bring out all the detail and drama.”
The established Snakeoil quartet is here a quintet, with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira. Note the absence of bass in a lineup that matches Berne’s alto with Oscar Noriega’s clarinets, with Matt Mitchell on piano and electronics and Ches Smith drums and vibes. The mix of piano, vibes and guitar, in particular, allows Berne to orchestrate sonics that are rich in harmonic resonance.
We first hear Ferreira’s guitar at the end of that one-minute tumble into the album’s first cut, “Lost in Redding”, and the guitar sounds grittily electronic amid an otherwise bright group sound. When suddenly exposed in a duet with Noriega’s bass clarinet, Ryan finds sounds that fuse with its earthiness. Mitchell then enters on piano, and a rich new seam of sound opens up. Berne answers with subtle touches, but Smith’s vibes and later Ryan’s guitar play more prominent counterpoint. The full group is heard again only after Smith switches back to drums, and the composition’s loop is closed with all present on a tight-knit reprise of that opening.
This is some of the most finely orchestrated music Berne has realised in the studio since the early 90s, when a short association with CBS allowed him to realise ambitious ensemble recordings such as Tim Berne’s Fractured Fairy Tales (1993, JMT).
At a shade under seven minutes, “Lost in Redding” is concise by Berne’s standards. The next and longest piece, “Small World In A Small Town” runs to just over eighteen. It begins with a leisurely discourse between piano and alto, which runs unaccompanied for six minutes until vibes chime in and brushed snares play over the surface rush of an escalating vortex. Then we hear Ferreira and Noriega again, the guitarist mostly adding texture, setting the clarinetist up for a solo and an exploratory piano duet. Smith then relaxes the vibe, still using brushes, preparing the way for a steadily pulsing, ever-tightening collective finale.
The sudden density of sound in that finale has real impact after such a spacious development.
On “Embraceable Me”, a standout track, guitar, vibraphone and piano combine in twisty cyclical figures that rapidly uncoil when alto and clarinet begin to swoop and dart between them. Soon the reeds are grounded, sounding dysphonic atop a swell of malleted toms, while electric guitar creates a sense of depth, looming ominously behind a steady chordal piano pulse. Berne extrapolates from that mood, developing a melodic notion through a steady process of tautly-drawn elaboration into a suddenly songlike resolution.
The gambit of a tonally ominous, implacable development yielding to sudden life is reprised on “Angles”, only for the piece to end peremptorily after just two and a half minutes. Its brevity is unprecedented in Berne’s songbook, and “You’ve Been Watching Me”, a solo feature for Ferreira’s acoustic guitar, is shorter still.
“Semi-Self Detached” repeats the gambit of a brief, twisty/chewy intro that suddenly desists, here yielding an almost complete silence, a fog-shrouded ambience that reeds and piano gently probe, into which Smith drops timpani percussion sounds and shimmering gong-strikes. Berne breaks at length from this uncharacteristic textural interplay with an impassioned solo that burns with free jazz fervour, and the group rise slowly but ineluctably to match his new pitch of intensity. The suddenly contemplative vibe of the resolution is as effective as it is unexpected.
Ferreira’s unfettered soloing gives “False Impressions” an abrasive edge, to which Mitchell responds with loudly reverberant piano chords, clusters and runs that develop as a fine solo. Berne rejoins to reprise the initial melody, and Noriega and Berne then duet, with Noriega’s bass clarinet occasionally aping bowed contrabass as Berne waxes lyrical, drawing Mitchell back into the conversation.
There’s both more tension and more spaciousness than usual in these songs’ constructions. Often typically labyrinthine, there are nevertheless moments in Berne’s latest music that allow the listener to take stock and reorient. You’ve Been Watching Me doesn’t top Shadow Man, but it does maintain the standard, and Ferreira’s presence tests the strengths and capabilities of Snakeoil’s settled group dynamic in new ways.
Tim Berne alto sax: Oscar Noriega clarinets; Ryan Ferreira electric and acoustic guitars; Matt Mitchell piano and electronics; Ches Smith drums, vibes.
Buy You’ve Been Watching Me direct from ECM.