“Few musicians working in or around jazz over the last 30 years have developed an idiomatic signature more distinctive than Tim Berne.”
Nate Chinen, The New York Times
Acclaim for the first, eponymous album from saxophonist-composer Tim Berne’s acoustic quartet Snakeoil came from far and wide: All About Jazz described the music as “unpredictable and fresh,” while The Guardian called it “an object lesson in balancing composition, improvisation and the tonal resources of an acoustic band.” The album made the DownBeat Critic’s Poll of the top 10 best releases of 2012, and Jazzwise underscored the stature of Snakeoil by declaring it to be “suffused with genuine humanity and more than a little wisdom.”
Stoked by this reception, Berne’s Snakeoil has upped the ante with its second ECM release, Shadow Man. Over four years together, Berne and his band of New York standouts – pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinettist Oscar Noriega and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith – have developed a rapport that sounds like communal telepathy. The studio outcome is a marvel of kinetic action, the six pieces of Shadow Man making for music as visceral as it is cerebral; there is rollercoaster dynamism and aching lyricism, roiling counterpoint and intriguing harmony, glinting detail and ensemble impact. The album is a dizzying experience for the senses, breath-taking – and, ultimately, moving – in its sheer imaginative verve.
Co-produced by Berne and David Torn, Shadow Man was recorded at the Clubhouse in upstate New York, with the aim of “capturing what we sound like live, except with studio-quality sound so that you can hear detail in the writing that often gets lost in a live setting,” Berne explains. “It may sound like an oxymoron, but we achieved this sort of transparent density, which has been a goal of mine lately. There’s a lot of contrapuntal writing and dynamic intensity to the music, a lot of sonic information – but presented with clarity.”
The album includes such tracks of concentrated punch as “Static”. But three pieces on Shadow Man – “OC/DC”, “Socket” and “Cornered (Duck)” – are near or over 20 minutes in length. The material justifies its expansiveness, the duration part and parcel with the rich, unspooling expression. Even in this age of diminished attention spans, this has an upside, Berne says: “I like to take advantage of the fact that I’m speaking to an audience that really wants to listen to music.”
Snakeoil is a band that loves to rehearse, developing and honing Berne’s exacting compositions to the point of second nature. “These guys are hungry for new music,” Berne says. “I feel like I can write almost anything for them now, and we’ve been playing together long enough that I don’t have to direct the improvisation. The most important thing is that everyone is confident – and sounds it, playing with real abandon. It’s more like a partnership at this point. I just happen to be the leader/composer.”
Berne’s compositions are multifarious and muscular, complex yet freewheeling and flowing. “I like for the tunes to build and flow – not just be this solo-head-solo thing,” he says. More than ever, Berne’s tone and phrasing on alto saxophone are as personal as a fingerprint, a sound that encompasses both a tough, very urban quick-wittedness and a cry of clear-eyed lyricism. In keeping with the emphasis on a woven fabric in his music, solos are often dialogues: “When I’m improvising in this group, I’m trying to avoid soloing in favor of a more collective approach.”
About Matt Mitchell, Berne says: “The sky’s the limit when writing for him, and what he does on this album is profound.” Among the pianist’s more striking passages is the solo that leads off “Socket,” by turns ruminative and wired. The New York Times featured Mitchell in a recent article titled “New Pilots at the Keyboard,” with Ben Ratliff describing the pianist’s method thusly: “Mr. Mitchell is a musician who feels close to the consensus language of straight-ahead jazz but wants to get beyond it. He does it with hands moving in independent parts, with polyrhythms, with music that approaches the technical level of études but that churns and whirls and leaves spaces for broad interpretation.” Along with being a bandleader himself, Mitchell is a recent member of trumpeter Dave Douglas’s popular quintet, as well as groups led by New York saxophonists Darius Jones and Michaël Attias.
As All Music Guide put it about their playing on Snakeoil, “Mitchell and Smith are twin pillars of the ensemble, guiding dynamic, time and shape.” That relationship has deepened for Shadow Man, with a signal example of their symbiosis found in the piano-percussion duets of “Cornered (Duck).” Smith has a background that ranges from early experience in punk and metal bands to jazz and free improvisation, as well as contemporary composition and Haitian vodou drumming. Increasingly one of the most in-demand drummers of his generation, Smith is being called by the likes of Marc Ribot and John Zorn; he also leads his own band, These Arches, which includes Berne plus tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, guitarist Mary Halvorson and keyboardist Andrea Parkins.
Smith’s playing on Shadow Man is a wonder of color and rhythm, drawing on a battery of congas, gongs and vibraphone. Of Smith’s percussion interlude in “Socket,” Berne notes: “His ‘solo’ typifies his unselfish, holistic approach to improvising, as he provides the ideal transition to the next section of the piece.” Smith’s resonating vibraphone is an intoxicating feature of the slow-burn opener “Son of Not Sure,” and the appearance of vibes elsewhere adds to the ideal of transparency. Berne adds: “Ches helps define the overall sound of Shadow Man as much by what he doesn’t play as what he does. A lot of the duos on the album happen spontaneously because Ches or Matt are laying out, with variety and open space coming about in an organic manner.”
Some of the album’s most diverting duos are between Berne and Oscar Noriega. The two reed players have developed, in the words of the BBC Online, “an enviable empathy.” The serpentine lines they play come about because “we’re relaxed, comfortable sharing air space,” Berne explains. “We don’t try too hard to make something happen – we just find a groove together.” Noriega has his key solos, too, as when he wails at the end of “Socket” (where he’s “really testifying,” Berne enthuses). Noriega has worked with the likes of Anthony Braxton, along with playing in the band Sideshow, which specialized in free approaches to Charles Ives, the clarinettist co-leads Banda De Los Muertos, as well as the collective Endangered Blood with Chris Speed, Trevor Dunn and Jim Black.
The meditative center of this swirling cornucopia of an album is the deeply affecting duo interpretation of Paul Motian’s “Psalm.” Snakeoil had originally been playing the piece live in an ensemble version. “But the idea of doing it in a sparer way came to me during a bout of insomnia the night before the session,” Berne explains. “There was no arrangement – we just started playing, totally open. I referred to the melody when I felt like it, and Matt created his part as we went. I love the tune – it captures, to use another oxymoron, the simple complexity of Paul’s writing. I like the intimacy of this version – it’s like listening to something that you weren’t really supposed to hear.”
Berne was recently named No. 7 of New York City’s top 25 essential jazz icons by Time Out New York, and he was called “a saxophonist and composer of granite conviction” by The New York Times. His 2012 Snakeoil album, Berne’s ECM debut as a leader, was his first studio release after eight years devoted to live recordings. As a sideman, he has also made ECM appearances on recent albums by Michael Formanek (The Rub and Spare Change, Small Places) and David Torn (Prezens).
Since learning at the elbow of St. Louis master Julius Hemphill in the ’70s, Berne has built an expansive discography as a leader that includes dozens of albums on the Columbia, JMT, Winter & Winter and Thirsty Ear labels, as well as a constellation of recordings on his own Screwgun imprint. Berne’s pace-setting ensembles over the past few decades have fomented a who’s who of improvisers, from Bloodcount (with Michael Formanek, Chris Speed, Marc Ducret, Jim Black); Caos Totale (Ducret, Django Bates, Herb Robertson, Steve Swell, Mark Dresser, Bobby Previte); and Miniature (Hank Roberts, Joey Baron) to Big Satan (Ducret, Tom Rainey); Paraphrase (Rainey, Drew Gress); Hard Cell (Rainey, Craig Taborn); and Science Friction (Ducret, Taborn, Rainey). There was also Buffalo Collision (with Roberts, Ethan Iverson, Dave King) and, more recently, the cooperative BB&C with Black and guitarist Nels Cline.
In its review of Snakeoil, the BBC Online praised Berne’s performances in a way that speaks to his ever-evolving career: “The longer he plays, the better he sounds.”