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Tim Berne Snakeoil Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

An interesting new chapter for Berne, promising much for the coming years on ECM.

John Eyles 2012

On his latest album, Snakeoil, recorded in New York in January 2011, alto saxophonist Tim Berne has broken away from patterns that have characterised his music for years. Instead of being released on his own Screwgun label, it marks his debut as a leader on ECM. The resulting budget allowed it to be studio-recorded rather than in concert, a comparative rarity for a Berne album.

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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