Snakeoil

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil plays at Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Monday, Feb. 27, and at Yoshi’s Oakland on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Tim BerneSnakeoil (ECM, 2012)

It’s not as though being on the ECM record label was going to change Tim Berne’s music, but I had to wonder. ECM has a sound, a particular aura that’s built Manfred Eicher a worldwide fan base, even though ECM’s range is wider than some realize. (Would you have submitted Prezens to the label that did a CD of Bach viola da gamba songs?)

Even when Eicher doesn’t produce a recording — as on Michael Formanek’s The Rub and Spare Change (reviewed here), he takes control of the final mixing. You don’t escape the sound.

So, while a track like “Not Sure” kicks off with those driving, bouncing composed lines that Berne is famous for, you’ve also got “Simple City,” which opens the album with Matt Mitchell on careful piano, letting the notes absorb into the resonant air. It’s like slowly crackling ice, with tiny dissonances here and there for color. Ches Smith starts adding some percussion (timpani, whoa) and Berne finally enters on sax — and the feeling has changed from that icy ECM specialty to the warm-and-comforting (but somehow still icy) ECM specialty.

Tim Berne. Source: Kuumbwa Jazz; click to go there. Photo by Robert Lewis.

Eicher is particularly good at recording drums. I can really savor Smith’s work all over this album, especially the cymbals, whether it’s him splashing about or that clean tapping of wood-on-metal. The resonant room plays well with Oscar Noriega‘s clarinet, too, especially early in “Yield.” He’s going crazy while the band plays a gentle, pulsing rhythm, and the little resonances of the room crop up when Noriega takes a breath or delivers a long, keening note — nice studio-provided touches.

The composing is Berne all over; the first instants of “Scanners” will tell you that, with its quick-paced theme stacking interlocked parts on top of each other. Snakeoil is full of those rock-out moments juxtaposed with loose improvisation or slow, contemplative stretches. The ending of “Simple City” is slow and drawn-out, reminding me of the cooldown endings to some of Berne’s half-hour Bloodcount suites.

None of the tracks is blazingly fast, but “Scanners” moves at a good clip. We’ll call that the hit single (at 7:21, it’s also the shortest song). And “Spectacle” builds to a big, stormy finish. On the prettier side, “Spare Parts” includes a gentle stretch while Berne solos warmly over a calm piano-and-clarinet line. It’s Berne-like and ECM-like, and it’s got a cozy feeling that plays well with the album’s rainy-day cover.

“Scanners” and part of “Spectacle” can be heard via the Screwgun Records page, where you can also order Snakeoil. And if you’re wondering whatever happened to that Los Totopos album Berne recorded — this is it; they just changed the band name.