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Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: The Fantastic Mrs. 10 (Intakt)

A review of the saxophonist-led ensemble's sixth release

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Tim Berne's Snakeoil, Fantastic Mrs. 10
The cover of Fantastic Mrs. 10 by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil

Eager to run a fool’s errand? Try neatly summing up the nature and appeal of alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s music. If anything, the task is more difficult now than it was several decades ago when he emerged as a firebrand innovator. However, in Jim Macnie’s liner notes here, Berne offers a few insights, when he’s not claiming to be utterly clueless: “Every part should be a melody. The bass lines; what some people think is a harmony part; it’s intricate, a puzzle. And then of course it’s all about momentum, which in my world is swing. Even though nothing swings.” If that description sounds intriguing, rest easy: The Fantastic Mrs. 10 will not disappoint.

Certainly there’s no shortage of headlong propulsion here—or a riotous brand of swing, for that matter. The album’s opening and title track, one of six compositions penned by Berne, is a clangorous, full-throated, improv-laced romp. Like “Surface Noise” and other multifaceted highlights, it’s swiftly distinguished by the ensemble’s peculiar instrumentation and chaotic chemistry. This session is Snakeoil’s sixth release, and the group’s latest recruit, venturesome guitarist Marc Ducret, sounds perfectly attuned to what Berne and his bandmates are trying to accomplish in a series of challenging, often eruptive settings. While keyboardist Matt Mitchell, reedman Oscar Noriega, and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith may be old hands when it comes to collaborating with Berne, they remain nimbly responsive, whether cast in dynamic roles or adding atmospheric touches and playful tweaks. Among the delights, not surprisingly, is a performance of “Dear Friend,” composed by Julius Hemphill, Berne’s guiding light. Illuminated by Smith on glockenspiel, it’s a lovely, spacious, soulful interlude.

Learn more about Fantastic Mrs. 10 on Amazon!

Originally Published

Mike Joyce

A former editor of JazzTimes, Mike Joyce has written extensively on jazz, blues, country, and pop music for The Washington Post, Maryland and Washington, D.C. public television stations, and other outlets.