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Saxophonist Tim Berne introduces a new quartet and a programme of powerful new music on his first studio album in eight years. “Snakeoil” is Berne’s third ECM appearance – he previously contributed to David Torn’s “Prezens” and Michael Formanek’s “The Rub and Spare Change” - and his leader debut for the label. It is also an exemplary manifestation of his compositional directions. Berne’s exacting pieces propel the players down maze-like corridors, with new challenges looming around every corner: startling textural shifts, serpentine melodies, sudden rhythmic displacements, modular grooves that gradually attain an unstoppable momentum. Written and improvised sequences blur into each other, overlap, run parallel. Throughout, Berne’s tough alto tone, honed decades ago under the mentorship of Julius Hemphill, is set off against the earthy lyricism of Oscar Noriega’s clarinets, Matt Mitchell’s compendious piano and Ches Smith’s buoyant net of drums, gongs and cymbals. It’s an arresting collective sound, from a disciplined crew: two years of workshopping and woodshedding preceded the recording to reach what Berne calls “the necessary ‘looseness’ essential for a group identity”, and to realize “the dynamics that would enable the sonic details of this chamber-like band to emerge clearly.” He describes the processes of preparing the project as “similar to how one would approach a classical recording”, yet the outcome is as far outside the genres as any of his work. Obvious stylistic reference is avoided.

“When I started out, in the early 1970s, many of the players I listened to a lot – including the Chicago guys like (Henry) Threadgill, Roscoe (Mitchell), (Anthony) Braxton – , they each had their own musical world,” Berne recalls. “Each of them had his own sound, and each of them put the music together in a different way, and none of them was making much use of head-solo-head formats, there was a lot of creating of suite-like things. I absorbed some of that approach naively, without really analyzing it, and very early on I decided that my tunes would not end, if I could help it, in the same way that they began. That became my thing. The music’s gotten more complex, or more sophisticated since then, but that simple, central idea remains at the core: I want to move the music to a different place. The point of writing music, for me, 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.”

One aspect informs the other, perhaps. As Berne’s Hard Cell trio, with Craig Taborn and Tom Rainey reached the natural end of its lifespan, much of Berne’s time in the last decade was invested in improvising groups. Amongst them, Buffalo Collision with Ethan Iverson, Hank Roberts and Dave King, Paraphrase with Drew Gress and Tom Rainey, BB & C with Jim Black and Nels Cline. “I was avoiding decisive action for a few years, hoping some brilliant concept might suddenly appear in front of my eyes, and I finally came up with an idea for a new band. As always, I was looking for strong personalities who are not afraid to express their musical opinions in the heat of battle.”
First of the musicians to be approached was pianist Matt Mitchell, who had written to Berne 12 years ago, while still a music student, requesting scores of two of Tim’s more convoluted pieces, an early signal of earnest intent from a player who likes a challenge. In a recent New York Times interview, Mitchell mentioned Andrew Hill and Iannis Xenakis as inspirations. On “Snakeoil”, Mitchell is, Berne says, “the master at managing the transitions, balancing the structural elements and the free elements and cueing the events in the scores. On this record, Matt and Ches are really the concertmasters – they keep everything moving forward. I’ve been trying to wean myself of dictatorial tendencies. In the past, I wanted to control everything that happened and when it happened – especially in some of my earlier music, which was sometimes fanatically arranged. At some point I backed away from that, wanting instead to become part of the surprise. I like to give more responsibility to the players and involve them more in the shaping of the music: by now, in this band, they’re as concerned about it as I am.”

The blending of Berne’s alto and Oscar Noriega’s clarinet, their malleable approach to a line and their close understanding, can sometimes leave a listener wondering whether he’s hearing written arrangement or music invented in the moment. “I’d known Oscar for years. We live in the same neighbourhood (in Brooklyn), but hadn’t played together before this band. I had a bunch of music by Julius Hemphill at home, including some pieces for alto and trumpet which Julius had written for a gig with Lester (Bowie). I ran into Oscar in the street one day and asked him if he’d like to come over to the house and read through it with me, clarinet being in the same register as the trumpet. And that felt good right away. In the quartet I’m also enjoying the sound of Oscar’s bass clarinet with the piano – I love that.”

Berne met drummer Ches Smith through guitarist Mary Halvorson, all three part of NYC’s shifting pool of improvisers. “I liked Ches’s whole vibe, including the seriousness with which he approaches rehearsal, whether or not there’s a gig in sight. That was a big point for me. When I had these three players who were both original improvisers and great readers, it was really a motivation to write a lot of new material…” Smith extends his drum kit on “Snakeoil”, adding tympani, congas and gongs. His frame of reference is unique, his own background tracing an arc from early experiences in metal and punk bands, to jazz and free improvisation, contemporary composition and Haitian vodou drumming. His CV includes gigs with everyone from rock band Mr Bungle to Terry Riley, via Wadada Leo Smith, Iggy Pop, John Tchicai, Fred Frith, and Marc Robot’s Ceramic Dog. Smith’s own band These Arches currently includes Tim Berne, as well as Tony Malaby, Mary Halvorson and Andrea Parkins.

Matt Mitchell is a pianist and composer interested in the intersections of various strains of acoustic, electric, composed, and improvised new music. His sextet, Central Chain includes fellow Snakeoil members Tim Berne and Oscar Noriega, as well as Mary Halvorson, John Hebert, and Tomas Fujiwara. He also plays in trio with Berne and Ches Smith, and in duo with Smith. Other affiliations include groups with John Hollenbeck, Darius Jones, Rudresh Mahanthappa/Bunky Green and others. He is also active as an educator at the Brooklyn Center for Improvisational Music.

Oscar Noriega has previously worked with Lee Konitz, Anthony Braxton, Dewey Redman and Paul Motian, and been a member of the band Sideshow, who specialized in free approaches to the music of Charles Ives. Current activities include the ‘Mexico-inspired’ Banda De Los Muertos, which Noriega co-leads, and the group Endangered Blood with Chris Speed, Jim Black and Trevor Dunn. Since Fall 2010, he has curated The Palimpsestic Series, a weekly music event at Barbes, Brooklyn.
Tim Berne was recently ranked in the Top 10 of Time Out New York’s “Essential NYC Jazz Icons”, an honour he will likely take with a pinch of salt, but also a reminder of the persistence of his endeavours: “Based on the recorded evidence, it may very well have been Tim Berne who was the definitive genius of NYC’s downtown 1980s jazz scene,” Time Out opined. “In the intervening years, he has remained committed to exploring the small group jazz idiom with a series of gritty, head-turning bands that have helped propel younger players such as Jim Black, Craig Taborn and Ches Smith into alt-jazz stardom”.

Since 1996, the primary outlet for Berne’s recordings has been his own label Screwgun, which has presented his bands, mostly in concert recordings. For the new quartet, he sought a larger platform. Accordingly, “Snakeoil” was recorded for ECM at Avatar Studios in New York in January 2011, with Manfred Eicher producing.

“As this band progressed, about a year into the work, I felt it was time to start thinking about a studio album, and also one that could maybe be heard a little more widely. And I had a strong wish to work with a producer, to have some feedback in the working process. I wanted a collaboration. Manfred was helpful in the recording, not just in terms of sound, but in dynamic details and musical details, too, including ideas for duo and trio sections in the work, sculpting and tightening areas of the music that I’d been leaving open in performance. The first day of recording we were fine-tuning the material. On the second day, we ripped through it, and really got a flow going.”

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