Somewhere around January of 2009, alto saxophonist Tim Berne started working with a jazz quartet whose other members were Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Matt Mitchell on piano, and Ches Smith on a diversity of percussion instruments. After two years of wood-shedding, they were ready to go into Avatar Studios in New York, where they recorded six tracks on January 10 and 11 in 2011, all of which were composed by Berne, one in collaboration with Mitchell. Manfred Eicher took this material and released it on ECM on February 7, 2012 under the title Snakeoil.
Berne was happy enough with that title that it has become the name of his quartet; and ECM will release, Shadow Man, the group’s next recording, on October 1. There are again six tracks. This time, one of them is a relatively loose interpretation of Paul Motian’s “Psalm,” performed as a duo by Berne and Mitchell. There is no indication of whether this was intended as a memorial reflection on Motian’s death on November 22, 2011. However, there is something heart-wrenchingly elegiac about how these two musicians could mine so much lyricism from what appears to have been a spontaneous improvisation on Motian’s tune. Those who know the context will probably be particularly moved by a subtle reference to “Happy Birthday” that evaporates almost as soon as it registers in mind.
The remaining tracks are again all by Berne, one, “Static” a collaboration with Marc Ducret, his colleague from Bloodcount. As was the case with Snakeoil’s debut album, Berne’s style is a wild and hard-driving continuation of that spirit of free jazz that was born in the mid-Fifties and thrived under past masters such as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and, later, Anthony Braxton. The reed work, particularly when it involves Berne playing off of Noriega on clarinet or bass clarinet, brings to mind the spirits of Eric Dolphy at their freest and wildest; and, while this group is not yet quite up to free-blowing on the scale of Coltrane’s “Ascension,” they are certainly getting there, particularly with the extended duration of “OC/DC.”
Shortly after Shadow Man is released, Snakeoil will go on another United States tour. This will be a bit more modest than the one arranged for the original Snakeoil release; and, sadly, it will not advance any further west than Chicago. However, for those who happen to be in the right place at the right time, here are the dates and venues:
- October 9, Washington, DC, Atlas Performing Arts Center
- October 10, Baltimore, Maryland, Windup space
- October 11, New Haven, Connecticut, Firehouse 12
- October 14, Harrisonburg, Virginia, James Madison University
- October 15, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Art Alliance
- October 16, New York, New York, Jazz Standard
- October 19, Chicago, Illinois, Constellation
- January 26, Buffalo, New York, Albright-Knox Gallery