Tim Berne’s Snakeoil — Shadow Man (ECM, 2013)
Maybe this is a dumb thing to say, but Shadow Man, the second outing for Tim Berne’s Snakeoil quartet, feels like songs and arrangements picked for the group, a conscious effort to stretch the band’s boundaries.
It’s a fine-lined distinction and possibly a phantom one; after all, it’s pretty obvious the group existed, toured successfully, and made plans for a second album — so of course the songs were hand-picked for them. It just feels like this time, Berne and his cohorts had the advantage of fully knowing the band’s strengths and tendencies. The second time around, they could play to their strengths but also try to push into new territory.
Maybe I’m only getting that impression because “side two” (i.e., the last three songs out of six) consists of three suites, at 23, 19, and 16 minutes, respectively. Not so unusual for a Tim Berne album, but … well, I took it as a sign that these guys aren’t kidding around.
“Socket” (the 19-minute one) has your uptempo, bouncing Berne melodies and the slow parts that typify a suite. But I get different colors out of this than from most of the first Snakeoil album — the almost avant-loungy lushness of the piano/sax duo and the percolating, Bloodcount-like heat of the theme that emerges at the halfway point. There’s a very ECM-like stretch with Oscar Noriega on clarinet, spinning a modern-classical-styled solo as he does so well, accompanied by Matt Mitchell’s patient, angular piano chords and just a wisp of a vibraphone sound from drummer Ches Smith.
“Static” broadsides its way through a nifty bass-clarinet solo by Noriega, then lands in a piano/sax area that feels to me like new ground. Maybe it’s just the instrumentation; that’s certainly Berne soloing, but that piano near-ostinato and the echoey ECM production give it an air that seems new.
The album even starts as if trying to make a new impression. Berne doesn’t appear for the first three minutes, leaving us in a sea of piano and vibes — alien ground compared with Berne’s albums from the ’90s and ’00s.
Of course, Shadow Man isn’t a complete departure. “Static,” “OC/DC,” and “Cornered (Duck)” open with pulse-pounding lines in Berne’s familiar herky-jerky style. (“Static” was co-written with Marc Ducret and got workouts with the Big Satan trio.) Plenty of Berne-written goodness provides the foundation, and the band’s respective improvising voices stretch the fabric into new shapes. It’s a solid effort.
Every other review seems to mention Paul Motian’s “Psalm,” so I might as well, too. It’s a fitting homage to the drummer, a spacious, still duet of Berne and Mitchell maintaining a balanced sense of motion.