Berne says: "I'd decided on this very transparent instrumentation to try and avoid obvious stylistic references and to focus the listener on the musical ideas being presented." The album is an exemplary manifestation of his compositional directions. Berne's exacting pieces propel the players down maze-like corridors, with new challenges looming around every corner: startling textural shifts, serpentine melodies, sudden rhythmic displacements, modular grooves that gradually attain an unstoppable momentum. Written and improvised sequences blur into each other, overlap, run parallel.
It's an arresting collective sound, from a disciplined crew: two years of workshopping and woodshedding preceded the recording - at New York's Avatar Studios early in 2011 - to reach what Berne calls "the necessary 'looseness' essential for a group identity", and to realize "the dynamics that would enable the sonic details of this chamber-like band to emerge clearly." He describes the processes of preparing the project as "similar to how one would approach a classical recording", yet the outcome is as far outside the genres as any of his work.
Personnel: Tim Berne (alto saxophone), Oscar Noriega (Bflat and bass clarinets), Matt Mitchell (piano), Ches Smith (drums, percussion)
Produced by ECM proprietor Manfred Eicher, Snakeoil sounds as good as any album from Berne, without conforming to stereotypes of ‘the ECM sound’. It features a new quartet that also breaks with Berne’s past, including none of the company of players who have been his habitual collaborators. Instead, in come three exciting new players – clarinettist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Ches Smith – like Berne, all regulars on the New York scene. Their acoustic group sound is more refined and melodic than some of Berne’s electric ensembles.
Despite such changes, the music on the album is unmistakably Berne. Across the six tracks, four lasting over 12 minutes, his compositions allow the musicians space and freedom to stretch out and improvise, the results going way beyond the written themes. The opening track, Simple City, begins with a prolonged, melodic piano and percussion intro from Mitchell and Smith, a vote of confidence in their abilities and a showcase for them. Throughout the album, the pair proves very influential on the sound of the quartet.
In typical fashion, the saxophonist leads from the front, reeling off a series of inspired solos; as with his compositions, the longer he plays the better he sounds. The choice of Noriega as a front-line partner for Berne was an inspired one. The two display enviable empathy, the kind that only develops over time. When he solos with Berne, their lines intertwine and weave around each other. As a soloist, Noriega has the added benefit that he doubles on bass clarinet, adding variety and colour to the group’s sound palette.
Snakeoil opens an interesting new chapter for Berne, this fine quartet promising much for the coming years on ECM.
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