Tim Berne’s third ECM album, You’ve Been Watching Me, sees the saxophonist-composer again leading his dynamic New York band Snakeoil, but with the quartet now a quintet with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira. The group’s 2013 release, Shadow Man, garnered Berne some of the highest praise of his career as a composer and bandleader, with The Guardian praising the album for its “unrelenting eventfulness” and JazzTimes marveling over how the leader’s music has grown “wilder and deeper.” DownBeat put it this way: “This music rocks and thinks, explores, deconstructs and, yes, it swings, in its own identifiably angular, Berne-ian way.” With You’ve Been Watching Me, Berne has hit a new pinnacle with his writing just as his band has reached a heightened state of collective interaction. Snakeoil – with the leader on alto sax alongside Matt Mitchell (piano and electronics), Oscar Noriega (various clarinets), Ches Smith (all manner of percussion) and Ferreira (electric and acoustic guitars) – can still be bracingly kinetic. But there is new space in these compositions and more lyrical focus to the improvisations, leading to a dramatic, even cinematic experience in such tracks as “Embraceable Me.”
Snakeoil, from 2012, was Berne’s first studio album after nearly a decade of live recordings; the music represented not only a new band but an exciting new era in the leader’s work, more harmonically rich and detail-conscious. Shadow Man, released the following year, aimed to document the powerful dynamics of the confident, road-honed Snakeoil band, virtually live in the studio. You’ve Been Watching Me – recorded, like Shadow Man, at the Clubhouse in upstate New York, with production and mixing by ECM veteran David Torn – documents a further evolutionary leap. “I look at studio records as like little movies,” Berne says. “And rather than make a sequel, I’d always rather make an entirely new movie.”
Instrumentally, what’s new about the Snakeoil of You’ve Been Watching Me is not only Ferreira’s guitars – atmospheric and incisive by turns – but also Mitchell adding ambient electronics to the mix, along with his acoustic piano. And Smith plays vibes as often as he does drums on the album, leading to even more harmonic resonance in the swirl of sound. “I picture it as Ryan, Matt and Ches creating a kind of ‘U’ shape that Oscar and I fit into,” Berne says. “The band sounds more transparent, even though we’ve added an instrument – it’s a sort of subtraction by addition. This is a real band record, too, with a lot of listening and laying out. There’s less soloistic improvising, more duos and trios – the approach is more collective. And everyone really had to be on their toes, because the music was new and Ryan’s sound was new – we had only played a few gigs with him before going into the studio. But Torn strategized closely with Ryan in the studio, bringing in amps and working on how he fit into the sonic picture.”
Torn – a long-time Berne confrere, as well as an ECM recording artist in his own right – hears You’ve Been Watching Me as a new landmark for the veteran saxophonist. “I think Tim has been really inspired by this band,” the producer says. “The music on the new album is intense, as we expect it to be with a Tim Berne record. The dynamic range of this band is off the charts, so it’s not just loud – though this group can get super loud – but very quiet, too. Yet there’s this new spaciousness to the music. As he has increasingly added space to his compositional palette, the improvisations are responding to that – the space has become an important part of the improvising. The arrangements have opened up, and there are new sounds. Ryan’s guitar often functions like a giant reverb machine, and it gives everyone in the band a lot to play off of.”
Berne has long been drawn to guitar in his music, as associations with such six-string aces as Torn, Nels Cline, Marc Ducret and Bill Frisell underscore. “I’ve always loved guitar players and the texture of the alto with a guitar,” Berne says. “Ryan doesn’t solo as much as he orchestrates. But like Torn or Frisell, he doesn’t have to solo to be present. He makes everyone else sound great, always adding interesting counterpoint.” Spotlighting Ferreira, the title track of You’ve Been Watching Me is a beautiful, fully composed interlude for solo acoustic guitar. It’s music that, for many, will reveal another side of Berne the composer.
Before that piece appears, though, the album kicks off with “Lost in Redding,” a headlong rhythmic dynamo in time-honored Berne tradition. At 18-minutes-plus, the disc’s longest track is “Small World in a Small Town,” the highlights of which include its swinging finish and a clarinet solo by Noriega that seems to find the roots of jazz in the art of charming snakes. Although “Angles” is less than three minutes long, its slow-burn start and high-impact end give it the feel of distance traveled. After quiet stretches of ambient rumination in “Semi-Self Detached,” the climax sees Berne’s high-energy alto squall mightily over the band’s collective tremolo. “False Impressions” includes examples of Smith’s rhythm-driven vibes and an extended piano solo by Mitchell.
Then there’s the aforementioned “Embraceable Me.” It represents a new sound for Berne and Snakeoil, one of wide-screen vista and epic lyricism – particularly in the 14-minute track’s back half, when the leader plays long-toned melody over Mitchell’s tolling piano groove, Noriega’s shadowing clarinet, Smith’s military snare and Ferreira’s vaulting, metal-sculpture guitar. Reflecting on this piece, Torn says: “I don’t think Tim gets enough due for the sheer beauty of his alto tone.”
Reflecting on You’ve Been Watching Me and Snakeoil’s evolution, Berne says: “I have a lot of trust in these guys, and their confidence has really grown over these five or six years, so I exploited that confidence in the studio by adding a new member, brand-new music, new sounds. But the chemistry is so good with this band that everything was as focused as it’s ever been on one of my records, with real intent to the improvising. Almost everything was nailed in one or two takes, though Torn put extra time into the mix to bring out all the detail and drama that was there. The album captures Snakeoil at a special point, a new peak for us.”
Tim Berne was recently named No. 7 of New York City’s “essential jazz icons” by Time Out New York and declared “a saxophonist and composer of granite conviction” by The New York Times. Acclaim for the first, eponymous ECM album from his Snakeoil band came from far and wide, with The Guardian calling it “an object lesson in balancing composition, improvisation and the tonal resources of an acoustic band.” The album made the DownBeat Critics Poll of the top 10 best releases of 2012, and New York Times critic Nate Chinen listed it as his No. 1 release of the year. With the release of Shadow Man in 2013, All About Jazz affirmed Snakeoil as “Berne’s most impressively cohesive group yet.”
In its review of Snakeoil, BBC Online praised Berne’s performances in a way that speaks to his ever-evolving career: “The longer he plays, the better he sounds.”