CD REVIEW: Tim Berne's Snakeoil - Incidentals



Tim Berne's Snakeoil - Incidentals
ECM 576 725. Review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

Of all the musicians who have emerged from the creative New York scene of the 1980s (also known as the Downtown scene, a term disliked by the musicians) I find Tim Berne to be the musician, composer and band leader that has contributed the most to contemporary jazz. Tim has led groups that play totally freely, e.g. Paraphrase, but it is with the groups, e.g. Caos Totale, Bloodcount and his current group Snakeoil, for which he writes extensive, interweaving compositions in which the movement between structure and improvisation is seamless, that he is at his most original and visceral.

Incidentals is the fourth album that Snakeoil has made for ECM Records. In this and the previous album You’ve Been Watching Me the original quartet of Tim on alto saxophone, Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith on drums, vibes and other percussion has been joined by guitarist Ryan Ferreira. The addition of guitar has significantly broadened the dynamic range of the group; Ferreira comes in with striking bursts of electric guitar, and this seems to have liberated Smith to create exciting explosions of sound on drums, tympani and vibes. The contrast between the lines created by the two horns and what the guitar, percussion and piano are doing behind and over them is one of the delights of this album. It is a contrast that means that there is always a strong rhythmic impulse but one that does not take anything away from the edginess of the music.

There are five tracks, four composed by Berne and one co-written with Mitchell. I’ll focus on the third track, Sideshow, at 26.01 mins by far the longest track on the album, as it contains most of the features that give the band its character. It moves through various fairly clearly delineated sections and through quite distinct moods. Often a particular section will focus initially on one member of the band and then gradually build up the intensity and energy through the gradual entry of other members. There is also a movement between the more intense sections and those that are more contemplative.

The track begins with a fairly long piano introduction which leads into an ensemble passage with complex lines that flow and take occasional sharp turns. The ensemble lines become more rhythmic and Smith's percussion adds to the strong groove. The piano then takes up the theme with the horns adding a punchy rhythmic accompaniment. This is gradually taken down, leading into a much gentler passage with Noriega dominant on clarinet. The energy gradually builds up again with Tim coming in on alto sax leading into a mellow passage with the horns dominant which winds down with a strong interjection from Smith on the cymbals.

We then go into possibly the most exciting passage of the track with Ferreira initially dominant with ambient sounds on guitar, which leads into a more intense section with jagged guitar, plus piano and percussion before the horns return with a fairly gentle, rather melancholy line behind which the percussion and guitar build up to a climax with Smith very strong on tympani. The track gradually winds down with David Torn, the album producer, having the final say on guitar.

Of the five Snakeoil albums, four on ECM and one on Tim’s own Screwgun label, this is the one that is probably the most varied and happening. But they are all amazing.

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