Wednesday, February 22, 2012

CD Review: Tim Berne - Snakeoil

Tim Berne

This isn't the first time Tim Berne has appeared on ECM. He played on David Torn's prog-improv album Prezens in 2007. But this represents his first session as a leader for the landmark label. Anyone who has followed the label with any regularity realizes that producer Manfred Eicher gives his sessions a unique sound. (So unique that I was able to identify it when I heard an ECM album playing in a coffeeshop last week.) So too does Tim Berne have a singular approach, one that he has admitted to using repeatedly, changing up the musicians when it's necessary to keep it fresh.

And from the opening moments (ever notice that ECM discs always begin with at least five seconds of silence?), Snake Oil is an ECM album. Matt Mitchell's piano has than tranquil sound that evokes snowy European peaks (personal image). It doesn't sound smooth or new age-y, but sonically it's a far cry from Downtown New York, even if it was recorded there.

Berne's alto doesn't enter until three minutes into "Simple City," and when he does it's classic Berne - sharp-tongued and fiercy, jousting with drummer Ches Smith over the scene. Like his best compositions, the piece goes through many shapes and changes, though at 14 minutes, it might be considered a shorter work for him. Oscar Noriega, who rounds out the quartet and acts as the reed foil on clarinet and bass clarinet, solos in the final section, his clear tone fitting in with the ECM aura. Berne had Chris Speed double on clarinet in Bloodcount, but Noriega's parts and even his tone often echo the way guitarist Marc Ducret harmonized in his appearances with several of his groups.

At times throughout Snake Oil, the quartet sounds like Eicher took the edge off of Berne, who is known for screaming crescendos and extended pieces where structures morph into different movements as soloists blow over them. The saxophonist's proclivity for repetitious choppy lines remains ("Scanners") but sometimes the fluid, calmer parts just seem to bask in the mood of that moment. Smith might be playing in a manner like Jim Black but that unpolished crack doesn't quite across.

But the full depth of a Tim Berne album often doesn't come out until numerous, engrossed listens. Snake Oil continues in that way. Just when "Not Sure" doesn't seem to be moving beyond a free interlude of alto and bass clarinet, it shifts into a knotty theme, and Mitchell plays over the jerky changes, which is a new thing for acoustic piano is almost never been heard on a Berne album. I've listened to this a lot in the past two weeks, and I'm still getting surprised each time.

So maybe Berne writes variations on the same thing with different configurations of players, but there's still new discoveries with each excursion.

And no, they don't cover the great Tony Williams Lifetime tune "Snake Oil." Alas.

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