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Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: Shadow Man

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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 extravagance of strange sonic shapes and colors. Yet it coheres according to proprietary logic.

The individual voices in Snakeoil are compelling. Oscar Noriega (clarinets) is free fluidity and light. Ches Smith (drums and vibraphone) unleashes percussive forces in clattering 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 saxophone is ferocious as ever, but more focused and concise.

But the individual voices serve Berne’s bold manifestations of ensemble form. “Son of Not So Sure” is powered upward in a sweeping trajectory as instruments are added to the gathering din. “OC/DC,” at 23 minutes, is not too long. Its vast variety sequentially unfolds: finely delineated contrapuntal interactions; crashing, careening ensembles; duos and trios breaking off from the quartet. Relationships between composition and improvisation are complex yet organic. Dynamic range can swing from single piano notes surrounded by silence to the direst sonic crises. “Socket,” at 19 minutes, comes closest to a string of vivid solos, yet no one dominates for long. Mitchell usually chooses to prod and incite Noriega and Berne, but might choose to overwhelm them.

Smack in the middle of five expansive Berne originals is Paul Motian’s four-minute “Psalm,” a duo performance made from scattered piano chimings and alto saxophone long tones. In press notes, Berne describes it as “something that you weren’t really supposed to hear,” perhaps because it is too intimate to be shared. It is a call of the sprit in one single breath. It is the eye of the hurricane in Shadow Man.

Originally Published