Shadow Man by Tim Berne's Snakeoil

The new ECM release

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.

His albums before these were almost always in live settings where that "comfortable perfection" was achieved. After the first Snakeoil album—a studio recording—Berne has continued the studio recordings for ECM where that quality continues on "Shadow Man." Produced by Tim Berne and David Torn and engineered by Joe Branciforte, this is a crisp and distinctively understandable recording. Berne says that "Shadow Man" was recorded with the aim of “capturing what we sound like live, except with studio-quality sound so that you can hear detail in the writing that often gets lost in a live setting,”

The album begins with “Son of Not So Sure” (Berne, composer) as pianist Matt Mitchell follows Ches Smith’s percussion lead-in who later moves to vibraphone and back to percussion. This piece is the jazz of rhythm.

“Static” is a Tim Berne/Marc Ducret piece. The trading between Berne and clarinetist Oscar Noriega is an adventurous launching into the deep as Mitchell and Smith allow the reeds to broaden the acopustic horizon. Mitchell’s piano-work is particularly fascinating with ita heavy percussiveness. Ches Smith, meanwhile, creates a spray of rhythmic color between drums and vibes while never over-playing.

Paul Motian’s “Psalm” is played so openly, even expansively, that it creates a meditative—perhaps mesmerizing—air of thought and imagination. For fans of Motian, the Snakeoil interpretation is a reverent but well-interpreted treatment.

“OC/DC” (Berne, composer) is the first of the extended pieces, coming in at 22:55. The trembling bass clarinet is a brilliant interpretive instrument. The song is built on a groove that is so intuitive that it fashions a quality of inevitability. Berne breaks from that groove only to reinforce the power of it.

Guitar virtuoso and teacher Jay “Bird” Koder instructs “Think about what you want to play, then DON’T.” So often in “OC/DC” you can almost hear what Smith wants to play but doesn’t. “That,” says Koder, “is how you create space for other players.”

Noriega’s intriguing clarinet solo is another walk-off that brings sax and piano in tow. The discipline is immeasurable. Smith sits out the third quarter of the piece but returns with industrious rhythms that literally steal the attention in what may very well be the linchpin of the whole album.

Matt Mitchell’s piano solo introduces “Socket.” Another extended work (18:52), Mitchell carries the heralding solo for two full minutes before being joined by drums and reeds. The synchronicity of sax and clarinets leads one to believe that one heart must be driving them or at least—as Jung would have it—an “acausal connecting principle.” That connecting principle is the same inevitability as mentioned before.

Smith and Mitchell craft some of the most powerful rhythmic structures of the whole album on this piece. Mitchell is brilliantly melodic and percussive at the same time. Smith’s high-hat solo is something not seen since Max Roach.

It is also on “Socket” that Noriega offers some of his most captivating solo work. The fade-out is almost Afro-Cuban in its rhythmic intensity and variation. At 18:52, “Socket” is exactly as long as it needs to be.

The album closes with “Cornered (Duck),” another Berne tune, featuring the bass clarinet alongside the alto sax. This is where Matt Mitchell has his best moments, especially as supported by Ches Smith. Mitchell and Smith are in harmony together no less that Berne and Noriega. The feeling is that this is an album of duets by duos.

The four come together again after the 10:00 mark and that hard-groove carries them all to the end. It leaves the hearer saying, “What? No! It can’t be finished!”

The sound quality really is amazing, but then nothing less would be expected of Berne, Torn and Blanciforte (himself a drummer and composer).

ECM has struck gold again. “Shadow Man” can be purchased here:

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Travis Rogers