When it comes to great musicians who have disregarded boundaries to the point of becoming genres unto themselves, many of their back stories are auspicious. They seem to connect to music at a very young age, often prior to their teens, and their primary instrument lands in their lap soon afterwards. They get an early start and never slow down. The community of jazz greats is filled with lofty stories of promise, which is why Tim Berne’s late bloom into the style comes as a relief. It wasn’t until he was in college when Berne actually had the inclination to take up an instrument. And even with a saxophone in his hands, he didn’t seem to give a damn about jazz at first. It was Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. that was the game changer for Berne. Shortly after hearing this seminal album, as well as becoming one of Hemphill’s pupils, Tim Berne hit his stride and subtly became one of the prime movers and shakers of New York’s downtown avant-garde scene. His career hit the music world like a man making up for lost time. He formed band after band, appeared on other people’s albums and started to sculpt a style that can’t easily be pinned to anyone else, past or present.
Although Berne has been tending to his own Screwgun label for a number of years now, Snakeoil appears to be his first solo album on ECM (he’s helped others on the label before). His current band’s lineup consists of pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega and drummer Ches Smith – and the formula probably couldn’t be any more perfect even if it tried. Since Berne’s writing runs so deep in the experimental, post-everything vein, the makeup of the songs can get hazy. Are they prewritten? Are they being written on the spot? Is there something else going on that the conscious mind has yet to discover? This is only part of Snakeoil‘s genuine appeal; whether or not you care how it happens, music is happening. No one is taking the lead in a strict sense, but no one is just vamping the chords either. The main interplays, be they between Berne and Noriega or Berne and Mitchell, drift together then disperse in a manner that feels innate and organic.
I could attempt to go into detail of what’s happening and why it is so good, but this is music where the appeal lies in the heaping of layers and how it is all “happening.” “Simple City” is the CD’s waking giant, taking a whopping 14 minutes to stretch and yawn, incredibly feeling neither rushed nor lethargic. “Spectacle” is the closing barnstormer, finding Berne and Noriega in a seemingly endless tug-o-war while Smith gracefully applies the brakes. In between these are four more tracks that fully confront your preconceptions of jazz but do not beat back the listener with artiness. “Yield”, in particular, is Mitchell’s time to shine. Co-written by the two reedmen, it’s harmonically lovely and structurally dangerous.
And how do these things get written? How do they come about? Absorbing Snakeoil is one of this “how did they do that?” kinds of experiences. Tim Berne is one of those true visionaries who, when casting aside a formula, has a clear idea of what he wants to do instead. And that is what’s going to make Snakeoil one of the greats.
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