Record review: Tim Berne, "Snakeoil" (ECM)


In days of yore, folks thought Charlie Parker sounded weird -- the broken rhythms, the Byzantine riffs, the extra notes in his scales. Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy later got similar raps. Well, it was just what the musicians heard in their extraterrestrial headphones, and they stuck to it.

Same story with Tim Berne, but his timing wasn't so lucky; he started recording around 1980, when listeners had started to hear innovation as . . . old. Over time, other players' weirdness achieved canonical status. Due to Berne's perpetually limited exposure, though, his peculiar scales, hesitations and counterpoints, like the talk of some traveler you meet in a bar, still sound foreign for the first 10 minutes. After that, he's just Tim Berne.

So it was a good idea for Berne to start his first album for the storied ECM label with what in his world amounts to a ballad, the ironically named "Simple City" -- it's his way of buying us a drink. The first sound we hear, untypical of groups led by Berne, is a piano, that of New York avanteer Matt Mitchell, who configures the system abstractly before drummer Ches Smith's ragged cymbals clear the cobwebs for the entrance of alto man Berne and clarinetist Oscar Noriega. And what a SONG it turns out to be, fleshed out with hopeful vibrancy, poking around with creative curiosity before slowing down to disbelief and a rumbling, somber communion. Exquisite, almost to the point of pain.

Of the record's six extended tracks, I'll also note the concluding "Spectacle" for the way it gently thwarts rhythmic expectations as it gradually builds into a roiling Ascension abetted by two-fisted piano.

Between the bookends, the four musicians rarely STAY anywhere (they do gather briefly to exchange gossip like crows in a tree on "Scanners"), because they're always GOING somewhere. Our fascination grows from the paths they discover, whether in truncated fugue or scattered aggression or simply following their feet. The complex music is composed (live, you'll see them with sheet music), but it keeps a fresh impression of accident.

Despite the stratospheric level of the players with whom he has always associated -- Michael Formanek, Jim Black, Tom Rainey, Mark Dresser, Nels Cline, Drew Gress, et bloody al. -- this group attains a special cohesion thanks to Mitchell's piano, which smooths and contextualizes Berne's jagged edges. Mitchell hears the big picture with such subtlety, in fact, that I didn't notice until 10 minutes into the first track that there was no bassist, and I quickly forgot again. Mitchell finds a sympathetic foil in drummer Smith, who deploys his vast and trashy array of distinctive timbres with spare accuracy. Smith doesn't have to obsess over the outlaw rhythms, because they're in Berne's bones, and the saxist has a way of pulling everyone into his vortex; Noriega's intelligent colorations on B-flat and bass clarinets often sound like shadow augmentations of the leader's own lines.

Berne's compositions frequently don't so much conclude as stop -- they're segments clipped from the tape of life. As any wayfarer will tell you, the point is the trip, not the destination.

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Billed as Snakeoil, this very Tim Berne quartet plays the Blue Whale on Saturday, February 25.