An impressive showcase for Mr. Berne’s precisely gnarled ensemble writing – and for themusicians resourceful and alert enough to make it work.
Nate Chinen, The New York Times
Berne on alto saxophone, Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Matt Mitchell on piano, and Ches Smith on assorted drums, gongs, and vibes deliver half a dozen tunes -- five originals (that range from middle length to exceptionally long) and a deeply moving reading of Paul Motian's ‘Psalm’ -- with striking originality and a deepened focus on dialogue and exchange. Berne's writing is intensely detailed, and never more so than here. He writes motifs and frames that are designed to be lyrical yet open to dialogic improvisational opportunities. [...] Shadow Man's experiment, in trying to capture Snakeoil's live performance in detail and dynamic, is not only successful, it reveals this band at a peak of instinctive, intuitive creativity and imagination.
Thom Jurek, All Music
‘Shadow Man’ unfold organically, its main themes cropping up and blurring the lines between improvisation and composition. There’s somehting for everyone. Longtime Berne fans will delight in the group’s unrepentant fits and starts while Snakeoil converts will relish the thoughtful compositions.
Robert Miburn, The New York City Jazz Record
American alto saxophonist/composer Tim Berne says his four-year-old Snakeoil quartet is evolving toward ‘transparent density’ – a highly composed, contrapuntal contemporary jazz that doesn't sacrifice detail or spontaneity. [...] Three episodes (around 20 minutes each) on the six-track list are spellbinding examples of Berne's composing ingenuity and the band's agility at running with his ever-mobile ideas. Three shorter pieces feature typically seesawing themes, but the captivating Psalm with its brooding sax part sounds as if it has come from a more melodiously meditative ECM session than would usually carry Berne's name. The long passages OC/DC, Socket and Cornered (Duck) represent Snakeoil's progress, mingling wide-interval melodies that sometimes sound like contemporary classical music and sometimes trampling funk, quiet solos or intimate duets, tonal contrasts (warm clarinet lyricism, glimmering vibraphones, free-jazz sax wailing), dynamic percussion and unrelenting eventfulness. It's edgy, pattern spinning contemporary music, but austere it certainly is not.
John Fordham, The Guardian
When Tim Berne released his ECM debut, Snakeoil in 2012, it quickly garnered some of the best reviews of the saxophonist/composer's career, ending up on a number of year-end best of lists. And why not? With a group already together for a couple years (as Los Totopos), Snakeoil represented a major step forward for Berne, both compositionally and in terms of band concept. All-acoustic, Snakeoil also benefited from label head/producer Manfred Eicher's attention to detail and transparency. Snakeoil, in addition to being a musical high watermark, was Berne's best-sounding release to date. Eicher wasn't present at the Shadow Man sessions, but Berne (successfully) aimed for the same clarity of sound, sharing production credit with longtime occasional collaborator and one-time ECM recording artist David Torn. Shadow Man capitalizes on significant road time clocked up as a result of Snakeoil's success, bringing the quartet even closer together, with an even greater shared sense of purpose and simpatico on a set that more successfully captures the group's live energy without losing any of the detail available in the studio. [...] That Berne was able to release Shadow Man so quickly after Snakeoil is a hearty endorsement from a label that rarely does so. Recorded in January, 2013 and released three months before the year is over, Shadow Man is an even more impressive outing from a quartet that, in a career highlighted by strong associations, may well be Berne's most impressively cohesive group yet.
John Kelman, All About Jazz
Composer-saxophonist Tim Berne’s acoustic quartet Snakeoil was greeted with almost universal praise for the self-titled release of their first album in 2012. With such an enthusiastic reception of the debut album, the second album needed to rise to the enormous expectations—and it has done just that. It has been said that ‘Snakeoil is a band that loves to rehearse, developing and honing Berne’s exacting compositions to the point of second nature.’ For musicians such as Berne (alto saxophone), Oscar Noriega (clarinet and bass clarinet), Matt Mitchell (piano, keyboards) and Ches Smith (drums, vibes and percussion), perfection is not enough; it must be perfection-at-ease. It is exactitude and precision that has disciplined to the point where freedom and improvisation can be trusted. [...] With that trust, Berne can compose for his fellow musicians with complete confidence and no restrictions. Those compositions are excruciating in their demand but these four have taken complete ownership of the pieces.
Travis Rogers, Jazz Times
Verblüffend, wie dieses Quartett frei improvisierte und streng durchkomponierte Passagen, hysterische Lärmattacken und lyrische Klangflächen so organisch verbindet, dass auch längere Stücke nie an Spannung verlieren.
Bernhard Jugel, B5 aktuell
New York-based alto saxophonist Tim Berne has long been regarded one of the Downtown scene's most forward-thinking bandleaders. Among his peers, no other artist has so often fostered the creative talent of subsequent generations; multi-instrumentalist Chris Speed, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Jim Black all spent their formative years playing alongside the veteran saxophonist. Likewise, Berne recently recruited rising multi-instrumentalist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Ches Smith as members of his latest project, Snakeoil.
Shadow Man is the sophomore follow-up to the multi-generational quartet's critically acclaimed self-titled 2012 ECM debut, signifying the first time the esteemed leader has been signed to a major label since his late 1980's tenure with Columbia Records. [...] Although Berne's interest in free improvisation has been well documented over the past two decades, Snakeoil establishes a welcome return to composing. Eschewing convention, Berne's singularly oblique narratives convey dramatic tension through labyrinthine arrangements that seamlessly juxtapose freewheeling improvisation with intricate formal constraints. Fortified by four years spent touring together, Noriega, Mitchell and Smith interpret the leader's thorny frameworks with bold invention, instilling his coiled themes with youthful fervor.
Troy Collins, All About Jazz
Shadow Man’, the follow-up to last year’s widely praised debut, delves deeper into Berne’s difficult, beautiful sound world, mixing delicately intricate writing with muscular group improv, executed with utter conviction by clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Ches Smith. Berne calls the sound he’s reaching for ‘transparent density’, and every crash, bang and wallop is audible on this pristine ECM recording. In the end, though, it is Berne’s occult skills as a composer and bandleader that make this compelling, super-dense music apparently see-through. Worth the trouble.
Cormac Larkin, Irish Times
This band’s eponymous ECM debut last year was one of the most acclaimed jazz recordings of 2012. ‘Shadow Man’ is stronger. It is wilder and deeper, an oceanic extravance of strange sonic shapes and colors. Yet it coheres according to proprietary logic. The individual voices in Snakeoil are compelling. Oscar Noriega (clarinet) is free fluidity and light. Ches Smith (drums and vibraphone) unleashes percussive forces in cluttering waves, none the same. Matt Mitchell (pianos) is an original in both concept and sound. The remarkable independence of his two hands creates unique jagged designs. His clanging notes command the air. In this company, Tim Berne’s alto sax is ferocious as ever, but more focused and concise. But the individual voices serve Berne’s bold manifestations of ensemble form.
Thomas Conrad, Jazz Times