Sunday, March 15, 2020

CD Review: Tim Berne's Snakeoil - The Fantastic Mrs. 10

Tim Berne's Snakeoil
The Fantastic Mrs. 10

Charles Mingus called several of his albums "the best thing I've ever done," as a session was being committed to vinyl. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Changes One and Two both have this assessment stated in their liner notes and there are several others that escape me at the moment. On one hand, it seems funny that the great bassist and composer would say this every few albums, as if he either changed his mind about the previous release, or that he was simply speaking in the moment.. Yet it could also be seen as proof that Mingus always challenged himself to build on past accomplishments. (He certainly challenged his musicians that way.)

The Fantastic Mrs. 10 brings Tim Berne's Snakeoil to the Swiss label Intakt after four albums for ECM. He made his first Intakt appearance last year with Michael Formanek's Practical Trio. Along with Berne, Oscar Noriega (bass clarinet, B-flat clarinet), Matt Mitchell (piano) and Ches Smith (drums, percussion), the group includes Marc Ducret (guitar), Berne's bandmate from several projects, the most significant being Bloodcount.

The feeling of Bloodcount (Berne's '90s group with Formanek, Jim Black and Chris Speed) is in the air early on, and not merely because of Ducret's presence. The title track has asymmetrical line, with Berne and Noriega winding through the rest of the group in a way that recalls the previous ensemble. Listening closely, it sounds like Ducret and Mitchell might be adding quickly to the theme while also adding side comments (the guitarist) and playing chordal foundations (the pianist) at the same time.

Behind everything, Ches Smith is almost settling into a backbeat, focusing on the snare and high-hat  that grooves even though it isn't exactly in 4/4. This is where they leave the Bloodcount comparison behind. Had Jim Black been behind the kit, he would be splattering percussives in all directions. Consider the whole thing a new wrinkle in the Berne canon, and a strong opening to boot.

As with many Berne pieces, the aforementioned scene is really just one section that quickly changes before one can settle easily into it. The same thing happens in "Surface Noise." The first half of this 11-minute track feature the quintet creating a large almost choral sound, with Smith's vibes adding to the melody. The second half  pits Noreiga's bass clarinet against some sharp interjections from Ducret before Berne's free solo gradually pulls the group together into a theme, eventually ending abruptly. Smith does some more groove permutations in "The Amazing Mr. 7," later in the set, after playing a series of gongs, more vibes and Haitian tanbou (a barrel drum that sounds like conga).

Midway through the album, Berne cleverly includes a quick reading of "Dear Friend," a piece by his alto saxophone mentor, the late Julius Hemphill. At just three minutes, it offers a compelling break from the multi-leveled originals that surround it, and provides a reminder of the sensitivity that exists in this music even when things get noisy.

The liner notes to The Fantastic Mrs. 10, which are book-ended by two limericks about the band (not merely cute but actually truthful), consist of block quotes from each band member about the group. As I reached the end of them while spinning the album, Berne's final quote stood out: "I think this is the best one yet. That's a stupid thing to say, but it's kind of a culmination."

Maybe he and I were thinking on the same level or maybe I read that a while ago and only recalled it subliminally while thinking about the album. But Berne is right on the mark. The Fantastic Mrs. 10 has the bite and fury of his Bloodcount combined with the expansive sonic quality that has been a big part of the Snakeoil albums. If Berne pulls a Mingus and says the same thing a few albums from now, I wouldn't doubt him either.

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