Tim Berne – Snakeoil
(ECM 277 8654. CD Review by Chris Parker)
Tim Berne, who lists Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton among his most important early musical inspirations, has always aspired to ‘move the music to a different place’, eschewing head-solos-head formats, exploring the hinterland between structure and freedom, composition and improvisation, or – in his words – producing music the point of which is ‘to make something happen, to promote improvisation, to bring out musical events that would not develop without that push from the writing, and which could not emerge in a purely free playing situation’.
On this, his first album as a leader for ECM (although he has appeared on albums by David Torn and Michael Formanek for the label), Berne has assembled a group of players (clarinettist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, drummer Ches Smith) sufficiently tuned in to his musical ambitions to enable him to ‘wean myself off dictatorial tendencies’ so that he himself can ‘become part of the surprise’.
It’s worth quoting Berne at such length in this context because the music on Snakeoil, while incorporating much of the headily rumbustious full-on power of the altoist’s Screwgun recordings, is also discernibly the result of careful planning, not only regarding the choice of musical partners, but also the precise nature of the band’s collective sound and approach, what Berne describes as achieving ‘the necessary “looseness” essential for a group identity’, realising ‘the dynamics that would enable the sonic details of this chamber-like band to emerge clearly’.
The resultant album thoroughly vindicates all this forethought: Berne’s music is relatively complex, infused with driving energy, yet always open to the possibility of exploring unexpected byways, setting up intriguing textural contrasts or simply indulging in brawling climaxes in which Smith’s early experience in metal and punk bands comes in extremely handy, and Mitchell’s ability, in Berne’s words, ‘to manag[e] the transitions, balanc[e] the structural elements and the free elements and cu[e] the events in the scores’ is crucial. A rich, absorbing, multi-hued and continually surprising set from an inspirational composer/leader.