Review: Tim Berne's Snakeoil

Tim Berne
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All rights Reserved

Tim Berne's Snakeoil
(Vortex, Wednesday 14 March 2012, day 1 of 2 day residency; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)



At the Vortex, two vibrant sets from Tim Berne's Snakeoil quartet were all about the balance between compositional strength and improvisational flow. Tim Berne, a bastion of the New York alt-jazz scene, has explained elsewhere that he looks 'for strong personalities who are not afraid to express their opinions in the heat of the battle.' After periods when he has done a lot of improv, he ends up 'pining for composition.' He has described the three other players in Snakeoil as 'both original improvisers and great readers', which has spurred him on to write a lot of new material, giving rise to the eponymous CD, just released on ECM and reviewed HERE by Chris Parker.

Snakeoil have been playing together for almost two years - initially as 'Los Totopos' - and have forged an impressive creative and performing rapport, fostered by a commitment to rehearsal, and a mutual desire to respond to challenges.

The material was demanding, both in terms of the quartet's stamina and the concentration required from the audience. Berne is known for appreciating the listening audience in clubs such as the Vortex - perhaps this was why he said to the Vortex crowd, 'I actually begged for this gig!' and why BBC's Jazz on 3 chose to record it on the opening night of Snakeoil's European tour.

Snakeoil are essentially an acoustic band. There are no electronics, and they perform without amplification (the mics were there for the recording); and they have no bass player - Matt Mitchell's left hand and Oscar Noriega's bass clarinet filled that space. Berne, for such a strong personality, has a disarmingly downplayed alto style, eschewing signature mannerisms, choosing to play what is right, rather than what might be expected.

The compositions, circular and serial in form, were stretched out by flowing changes of pace and focus. Noriega's clarinets and Berne's alto shared harmonic routes through the choppy, dense scores. Ches Smith broadened his options with congas, a child's tiny xylophone, and a towering, coiled, sheet metal strip, tucked away to right of stage. Mitchell took on Smith with percussive keyboard assaults, and the corresponding hand taps on the cymbals and jumpy brushwork echoed the pianist’s more obsessive interrogations.

'Spectacle' from the album, had an American folk song thread. Berne's alto took on woodwind tones, Smith recalled Messiaens's whimsical bird calls using small hard mallets on xylophone and cowbell, and Noriega softly worked both low and high registers on B flat clarinet, before the bass clarinet was employed to exploit a faintly audible range to complete the impressionistic scene.

There were hints of Dolphy in the following theme which was played out with a sparky energy, although Noriega reserved the more strident, rasping bass clarinet tones associated with Dolphy for beautifully crafted, textured solo spells in the second set.

Berne described 'Jesus Christ Mini-Bar' as 'really tough for me and Oscar', and saw Noriega dismantle the possibilities among its sharp crashes and counterpoints. 'Cornered' had a schizophrenic quality, sharing a floating world abstraction with densely constructed passages within which was a rare space in which to follow Berne's driven alto phrasing, out on its own.

The two long sets were richly rewarding, affording no let-up for the band, which had just arrived from the States earlier in the day - perhaps explaining Berne's quip about 'Sketches of Pain' as he introduced the final number, which travelled through dynamic arpeggios, post-punk discord and a symphonic false ending, until the pace was gradually wound down to ease into the parking spot on the runway.

Tim Berne - alto sax
Oscar Noriega - B flat and bass clarinets
Matt Mitchell - piano
Ches Smith - percussion

Alex Roth's Tim Berne interview for LondonJazz is HERE

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