Tim Berne’s Snakeoil

You’ve Been Watching Me
ECM 2443

By Ken Waxman

Augmenting the already well-balanced sound of his Snakeoil quartet, alto saxophonist Tim Berne introduces guitarist Ryan Ferreira’s chord-shredding distortions to the seven Berne originals here, creating a fuller but no less memorable program than the quartet offered at April’s SRO appearance in Toronto. Added to the alternately luminously fluidity or strained grunting from Oscar Noriega’s clarinet or bass clarinet; Matt Mitchell’s poised linear piano style; plus discriminating accents from Ches Smith’s drums, vibes, tympani and percussion; the re-imagined ensemble easily negotiates the compositions’ intricacies.

Cunningly arranged so that each voice is heard clearly while the polyphonic nature of the tunes is emphasized, the final “False Impressions” is a fine example of this. As the guitarist’s angled flanges attempt to disrupt the proceedings, the theme is driven steadily forward by the pianist’s arpeggio-laden power. Perhaps the title is such because the piece is finally resolved as a thoroughgoing swing line. Further manoeuvres are expressed in the manner of a magician only fleetingly letting you peek at his strategies, as on Semi-Semi-Detached where a balanced block of patterning piano and blended horns is followed after a dramatic pause by a triple-tongued solo from Berne, whose alto sound as if it’s reaching for humanly unattainable notes. In contrast, “Embraceable Me”, which has no obvious resemblance to the standard Embraceable You”, goes through several distinct sequences that present bouncy music-box-like emphasis from Mitchell, broken-chord slamming from the guitarist and the clarinetist’s tremolo precision before a crescendo of united horns and piano timbres are roughly buzzed away by the altoist.

Nearly 18½-minutes long, the extended “Small World in a Small Town” is the CD’s centrepiece. Possibly composed as a concerto for himself, Berne spins out intense reed variations that range from swift laughing bites to sombre, near-ecclesiastical drones, as the sparse accompaniment is limited to infrequent piano or vibe voicing. With Noreiga’s near-Oriental tone providing an intermezzo, backed by brief piano pumps, Berne returns thickening his subsequent lines with intense multiphonics, until craftily, but not unexpectedly, the initial theme is recapped as a convincing summation by sax and piano.

Creating more memorable releases each time out Snake Oil is no nostrum but an elixir whose salutary qualities improve each time it’s sampled.

—For The Whole Note June 2015