If you were to ask me what makes Tim Berne’s music so appealing, I’d probably point you to one of his fast themes. That stacatto zig-zag melody, set in a long and ambling thread, has become a signature sound of his, and it catches my ear in an almost rock-music way.
But I also appreciate Berne’s ability to build drama, in carefully developed, looming plotlines. I’ve been familiar with that aspect of his work for a long time — the song “2011” from …theoretically, his 1986 collaboration with Bill Frisell, comes to mind.
It struck me during Berne’s show last Sunday, at Berkeley Arts Festival, that his current Snakeoil band nicely highlights that sense of drama. It’s the chords. With Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith sometimes on vibes (when he’s not rustling or bashing at the drum kit), the compositions get a rich harmonic backdrop, something I’m noticing more now than with previous keyboard bands.
The drama came across as Snakeoil played a set of the longer pieces from the new album, You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015). One passage that particularly struck me had the piano churning out a slow cycle of quarter-note against Oscar Noriega‘s high-pitched blaring on clarinet, the insistent rhythm building tension until the band launched into a majestic composed theme. It’s that theatrical pacing that makes Berne’s longer compositions work.
The band we saw was the original Snakeoil quartet, without Ryan Ferreira, the guitarist who’s included on the new album. They looked a little tired, and rightfully so. The west-coast swing of their tour had just passed through Los Angeles, where they’d had a gig canceled — without being told until they got to Los Angeles. We tried to make up for it with a warm welcome — maybe 70 or more filling up the storefront gallery of Berkeley Arts.
Oscar Noriega’s bass clarinet was often hard to hear over the drums, taking away some of the counterpoint that I enjoy in Berne’s writing. But we got to hear plenty of Noriega on plain clarinet, the higher notes sprinting or floating through the music. Some passages highlighting clarinet and vibes were particularly nice.
I think it was on “Embraceable Me” that Matt Mitchell showed off his talent at playing “split” piano, with his two hands doing almost unrelated things. That kind of musical puzzle was the foundation of his album, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013).
Another moment that stood out was the show’s opening — the song “Lost in Redding,” which immediately dived into the kind of fast, pecking melody that I was talking about at the beginning. From that point, we knew it was going to be a fun ride.