Tim Berne’s Snakeoil in Berkeley

Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne -- Tim Berne's Snakeoil at Berkeley Arts Festival, May 3, 2015

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.

Oscar Noriega and Ches SmithThe 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.

Matt Mitchell
Matt Mitchell.

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.

Shows: Dec. 16 to Dec. 22

Blood Wedding/Chuck Johnson @ Berkeley Arts Festival (Berkeley), Fri. Dec. 16, 8:00 p.m.
….. It says: Come if you dig: just intonation, noise, heterodyning, doom, hyperobjects, duende, difference tone synthesis. OK, then. Two solo acts: Blood Wedding involves vocals with digital processing; Johnson plays steel guitar and modular synth. I’m guessing loudness is involved here, but that’s a blind guess.

Aram Shelton, Corey Wright, Mark Clifford, Jordan Glenn & Anton Hatwich @ Berkeley Arts Festival (Berkeley), Sat. Dec. 17, 8:00 p.m.
….. Free jazz convened by Shelton (sax, clarinet) and featuring Chicago compatriot Hatwich (bass). Wright adds a second reeds voice, and Clifford and Glenn provide the percussion.

Maya Kronfeld Group/The Holly Martins @ Actual Cafe (Oakland), Sun. Dec. 18, 5:00 p.m.
….. The Actual Jazz Series is curated by saxophonist Kasey Knudsen this month. Kronfeld is a keyboardist who works frequently with vocalists; The Holly Martins are a trio with a strong jazz sound and an improvisational bent, featuring sax, guitar, and Lorin Benedict’s wordless vocals.
        * About the Actual Cafe/Series
        * About The Holly Martins’ CD

Tri-Cornered Tent Show & Libertas @ Musicians Union Hall (San Francisco), Sun. Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m.
….. A “skronk solstice special.”
        * Tri-Cornered, previous mention
        * Libertas, blogged in August

Jack o’ the Clock @ Subterranean Art House (Berkeley), Sun. Dec. 18, 9:00 p.m.
….. Really cool proggy/folky band with jazzy/chamber-music elements and an overall pop feel. They’ve played a few shows this year, which is nice to see. Oakland-based composer Andrew Weathers is on the bill, and Aymeric Hainaux, who sounds like a human beatbox performer with eclectic and glitchy variety, is headlining.
        * My writeup about the band
        * Jack o the Clock’s Web site
        * Aymeric Hainaux in action (video)

Music in Motion @ Luggage Store Gallery (San Francisco), Thur. Dec. 22, 8:00 p.m.
….. Three acts with solo musical voices: Laurie Amat (voice); Rent Romus and Vitali Kononov (sax and movement); and The X Factor, consisting solely of Bob Marsh (accordion, voice, tap shoes). As the program’s title says, the idea is to combine music and motion.
        * Video interview with Marsh about music, motion, and other stuff.

As always, you can find listings of upcoming shows at bayimproviser.com or transbaycalendar.org.