Tim Berne’s Snakeoil presents new album at Windup tonight
The prickly friction of fingers moving over a taut drumhead and the rhythmic purr of what sounds like a stick being dragged over something metallic creates a charged spaciousness in the opening minutes of “Son of Not So Sure,” the lead-off track on Shadow Man (ECM), the new album from Tim Berne’s Snakeoil. Drummer/percussionist and vibraphonist Ches Smith establishes that moody texture, through which pianist Matt Mitchell puddle-jumps around the keyboard, creating a woodsy space for clarinetist Oscar Noriega and Berne’s alto saxophone to sneak around each like fog slowly enveloping a forest. The track is a patient swell, taking almost all of its nearly seven minutes to find something close to, but not quite, a groove—though in the very next track the quartet explodes right out of the gate already deep inside of the pocket of a hustling swing, all four instruments taking turns holding the rhythm and passing it off while working in and around the melody. It’s a rousing, at times discombobulating delivery system for jolts of joy, starting with Noriega’s dancing clarinet solo that bleeds into a playful duet with Berne that eventually finds both of them skronking their way into a subdued calm before taking off again before the track’s eight minutes are up. Of course, the mercurially witty Berne titles this frenetic rush “Static.”
For more than three decades Berne has carved out one of the more quietly adventurous streaks in New York jazz. In April Time Out New York writers Hank Shteamer and Steve Smith named Berne one of “The 25 essential New York City jazz icons”, arguing that “John Zorn soaked up much of the media attention with his splashy genre-colliding experiments such as Naked City, but based purely on the recorded evidence, it may very well have been Tim Berne who was the definitive genius of NYC’s downtown 1980s jazz scene.”
Zorn is mentioned here not to compare the two–they’re peers, not competitors, and Berne can be heard in the left channel of 1988′s eras that gets explored, remembered, and curated as a time and place of profound creative experimentation. And where Zorn, whose sixtieth year on the planet has been marked with events around New York since the beginning of the summer, turned his ears to contemporary classical, speed metal, and the music of other cultures, Berne has playfully if adventurously mined the infinite possibilities of the small ensemble, steadily releasing albums from his own projects first with his Empire Productions label and later with the absolutely vital Screwgun Records, through which he also put out work by peers.
What runs through Berne’s entire output is his alto’s piercingly supple tone, which finds beauty in soulful density and shrieking ecstasy, and what sounds like a willingness to go wherever an ensemble wants to go and always have something to say. He just seems game for trying ideas out while still maintaining that experimentation should convey some emotional or psychological or human something, and it gives his music a welcome point of entry. Snakeoil has been his touring group of the past few years, and the quartet sounds like is has a blast in the short form (such as “Static”) or the long, such as the 22-minute “OC/DC.” Berne’s groups have a refreshing knack for making the non-tedious extended jams—the nearly 20-minute “Poetic Justice” laid down by Berne’s Paraphrase trio on Visitation Rites remains a personal fave instant pick-me-up, a music as guaranteed to turn a shitty mood around as Archie Shepp’s “The Magic of Ju-Ju” (below)–and “OC/DC” is no exception. Berne and Mitchell hold down a lion’s share of the rhythmic duty early on, allowing Smith and Noriega to dart around this eclectic reeds and piano pulse. A third of the way in Smith and Mitchell take over the beat, and the accompany Berne on a fiery run through before the song smolders into a Mitchell and Smith duet that finds a way to make pointillistic piano and percussive figures swing. It’s one gorgeous moment of two guys finding a groove in abstraction in a song that makes such a dazzle feel commonplace—Noriega’s solo a few minutes on is just as casually sublime—as if the group is arguing that splintering sound into chaotic shards need not abandon pleasure for its own sake.
Creative Differences presents Tim Berne’s Snakeoil at the Windup Space tonight, Oct. 10.