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Album Review: Tim Berne and Snakeoil

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


Tim Berne Snakeoil
Courtesy of ECM Records
Tim Berne has been working with long, intricately arranged pieces with his bands for most of his career. The rhythmic cycles of his compositions, where two or more parts stretch and pull the underlying pulse of the music, is always a strong, driving factor behind his music. His full-throated saxophone sound twists and turns often unpredictably through an ensemble texture that is often surprisingly thick for a group with no bass player. Berne’s first album recording for ECM as a leader, Snakeoil is still identifiable as his own, but is his most spacious and delicate yet.

Berne describes a long period of intentional “inactivity” while waiting for the idea for his new musical direction to fully form in his imagination. “Inactivity” is a relative term, because before the release of Snakeoil, Berne was still keeping busy as a sideman in various substantive projects. Particularly notable is his work with drummer Jim Black and guitarist Nels Cline. The band is called BB&C, and plays a refreshingly intense mixture of hard rock rhythms and jazz improvisation. On Snakeoil, Berne takes a different musical direction by finding musicians who express strong ideas even in the context of Berne’s often challenging compositions, what he calls “the heat of battle.” The music on this album allows the band to create without being restricted by the composition.

With Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano, and Ches Smith on drums, Berne has found a battle-ready band. Noriega’s earthy, melodic style is a vital and interesting foil to Berne’s serpentine and brash playing. The two are a like-minded front line with great chemistry. Also, Noriega’s ability to blend with Mitchell’s piano gives the group a flexibility to transform into something more akin to a chamber ensemble than a jazz band. The ensemble sections of the fast-paced “Not Sure” show off this malleable intermingling of the Noriega’s tone with Mitchell’s angular harmonies to great effect.

Ches Smith and Matt Mitchell know when to play Berne’s meditative grooves with a little extra muscle, and when to play more delicately. “Spectacle,” the last and most mysterious piece on the album finds these two moving in and out of metered time. The piece shifts between written and improvised passages for the soloists, duos, trios, and for the whole ensemble, and Mitchell and Smith are unafraid to abondon their posts as mere members of the rhythm section to reliably contribute vivid ideas to the conversation. Berne calls them the “concertmasters” of the band, and their prominent role in shaping the structure of the music makes it easy to understand why.

Snakeoil is an impressive new chapter in Berne’s work as a leader. The characteristic unpredictable and abrupt turns, and hypnotic rhythms are still an important part of Berne’s work, but here the familiar elements of his music are recast in a more transparent and more abstract light. Berne’s very approach to the saxophone seems transformed as well. With a different environment in which to play, Berne seems to have embrace a more grounded, slightly more inward mood, though his interest in expressing an earnest musical idea through a complex melody is still apparent. An extensive international tour follows the release of this album in February of 2012, and these concerts and this album come highly recommended.

Release Date:

February 7th, 2012 on ECM Records


  • Tim Berne – Saxophone, Compositions
  • Oscar Noriega – Clarinet, Bass Clarinet
  • Matt Mitchell – Piano
  • Ches Smith – Drums, Percussion

Track List:

  1. Simple City
  2. Scanners
  3. Spare Parts
  4. Yield
  5. Not Sure
  6. Spectacle
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