Tim Berne, Snakeoil

Snakeoil for a Cure

Tim Berne: Snakeoil (ECM)

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil on ECM is just out. Berne’s a “veteran” sax man who’s done his thing in a variety of contexts, mostly in the tough-minded prog-modernist-jazz area striding over free sounds, funk, soul/R&B and so forth. I really like this fact I found out about Berne, that he had no interest in playing a musical instrument till he was in college, when he picked up an alto sax after hearing Julius Hemphill. And his new Snakeoil record retains a lot of Berne’s unhindered-by-tradition ways of thinking about what jazz is, or what music itself is, even.

It’s an invitation to meander in a mosaic, a labyrinth, a maze: Berne’s extended compositions are ambitious in scope, which isn’t to say the results don’t always pan out. What’s most impressive about these pieces is that they have such a grand vision for themselves and consistently follow through on the premises proposed. Tracks like “Spectacle” and “Scanners” employ spiky counterpoint and surprisingly harmonized unison thorns divided between Berne’s slanting sax, Oscar Noriega’s sinuous clarinet, Ches Smith’s spare drum crashes/splashes and Matt Mitchell’s twinkly piano ornaments. “Not Sure” is peppier and knottier, Berne’s counterpoint continually breaking further apart, spinning outward as the tones fly ‘round the face like crows. “Simple City” hints at melodies that disembark into wider space, leaving jet trails of “tune” that are surely assembled in the listener’s own mind.

Poked a bit by Berne’s own brash individuality, the group’s meltdowns of texture, rhythm and melody are so intuitive and smart, and so very spare, thus the mood is pleasurably tense. But in a bigger way, the best things about this music are twofold: Of course there is a supremely satisfying brain-scrub promised and delivered; more importantly, its “emotions,” so to speak, combine emotional realities to produce feelings perhaps unfamiliar and thrillingly strange. And that is a very special gift.

***Berne and his Snakeoil band are touring: If you’re in Los Angeles or vicinity on Saturday, February 25, 9 p.m., make a beeline to Blue Whale at Weller Court, downtown. http://bluewhalemusic.com

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