“I’ve always liked the idea of steering people away from the material we start with,” Tim Berne says in the press notes for Incidentals, the latest album by the alto saxophonist’s daring, ever-developing group Snakeoil. It doesn’t take long for the music here to reflect that open strategy. Slowly emerging from pure silence, the opening track, “Hora Feliz,” suggests an “Also sprach”-like calm before a storm, building on pianist Matt Mitchell’s dappled and skittering notes and Berne’s placid tones, before abruptly shifting gears via the leader’s charged playing and clarinetist Oscar Noriega’s wiggly solo.
Snakeoil, also featuring the texture-minded guitarist Ryan Ferreira (a terrific recent add-on to the band) and the willfully creative drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith, takes its freeform, rhythmically free-floating approach to the limit on “Sideshow,” a 26-minute epic of toasty harmonies, blurred dissonances, ambient shifts and explosive effects (to which guitarist David Torn, the band’s regular producer, contributes). The piece is actually taken from an hour-long work combining it and “Small World in a Small Town,” which was presented as a separate track on the band’s previous album, You’ve Been Watching Me.
Among its many rewards, Incidentals documents the growth of the exciting partnership between Berne and Mitchell. The pianist recently recorded a critically acclaimed solo album of Berne compositions, FØRAGE. Here he relates to the leader through the heady way he embroiders open spaces, enhances the album’s pervasive classical imprint, intensifies the architecture of certain tunes and subtly colors the aural landscape with electronic touches. Berne thrives on his presence, as reflected in his Ornette-influenced playing on the roaring, group-powered “Incidentals Contact” and his hard-hitting, affecting solo on the concluding medley, “Prelude One/Sequel Too.”