Berne-Watching

Tim Berne’s SnakeoilYou’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015)

berne-youveBy the time I had opened Snakeoil’s You’ve Been Watching Me, I had seen the band twice, including one show that ran through all the major tracks on this, their third CD. So I wasn’t expecting any surprises — but I’d forgotten that this session adds guitarist Ryan Ferreira.

He blends in well. He’s often featured playing the unison lead, adding a new color to the themes. And sometimes he adds David Torn-like effects, as in the distant rumble he builds during the ominous ending to “Embraceable Me,” with its one-note piano chime holding the tension for the mad group solo to follow.

Tim Berne is an artist who churns through bands and compositions rapidly, always anxious to move on to the next thing. It’s nice, then, when something sticks. As with the Bloodcount quartet, it’s been good to see Snakeoil get time to settle, to find its own equilibrium.

“Comfortable” probably isn’t a word Berne wants to hear, but yes, I’ve grown comfortable with this band. It doesn’t feel stale, and the addition of Ferreira adds a fresh challenge without disbalancing the band’s chemical equation. But for me as a listener, what’s nice about “comfortable” is that this third Snakeoil album is heightening my awareness of what I like about this band.

Oscar Noriega‘s clarinet brings a chamber-music delicacy to those long, quiet stretches. He’s especially good during a long, spare stretch of “Small World in a Small Town,” playing opposite Matt Mitchell‘s piano and Ches Smith on vibes and drums.

Mitchell’s piano can play the role of a hard, punishing bassline, but his higher calling here is to add another dimension of tangle and complexity to Berne’s tangly, complex composing. Compositions such as “Small World in a Small Town,” “Embraceable Me,” and “Semi-Self Detatched” (excerpted below) feature cross-current melodies played by separate factions of the band — something Berne did with Bloodcount, too, but it feels like he has more options and more density with this band.


We enjoyed Ches Smith’s music here in the Bay Area for years, so it’s not surprising that he has an intuitive grasp for what this band needs. His drums are a catalyst for building the tension leading to those big, dramatic composed segments, while the vibraphones and timpani let him add to those quieter stretches.

And then there’s Ferreira’s guitar, filling a role similar to Marc Ducret‘s part-time role with Bloodcount: sometimes doubling up the melodies, sometimes adding rugged, scratchy effects to the mix. Over the quick, heavyhanded patter of “False Impressions,”he cuts a nice solo, choosing a skinny, echoey sound, from the Robert Fripp end of the spectrum. And he gets center-stage on the brief title track, a solo-guitar composition reminiscent of the Ducret pieces on Berne’s album, The Sevens.

Above: Snakeoil, minus Ferreira, performing “Embraceable Me” at The Stone.

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.

Tim Berne, Still Selling Snakeoil

Photo: John Rogers, via ECM website.
Photo: John Rogers, via ECM website.

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil has released its third album on ECM and is backing it with a U.S. tour launching this week. There’s only one California stop, at the Berkeley Arts Festival (2133 University Ave, Berkeley) on Sunday, May 3.

It’s too bad Yoshi’s is no longer an option. The club’s plush environs suited the sophistication and silences of the originial Snakeoil, especially the glassy foundation laid down by Matt Mitchell’s piano. The live act is more jagged than the ECM-polished version on disc, but it still worked really well in that club. Alas, in the time since Berne played there in 2012, Yoshi’s has become more of a pop venue.

Berkeley Arts doesn’t have Yoshi’s acoustics, but it will provide a receptive crowd that won’t be talking over the music, and we’ll be physically closer to the band. For Berne, the economics might not be the same (actually, who knows; maybe they’re better) but it’s a good tradeoff for us in the audience.

Released on April 10, You’ve Been Watching Me [WARNING: link launches an audio file] adds guitarist Ryan Ferreira to the original quartet of Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano, and the versatile Ches Smith on drums and percussion. New York audiences got a taste of the new mix at Roulette and Barbès concerts in 2013. Video evidence was posted online — part 1 of the 5-part Barbès concert seems to have gone missing, but here’s part 2:

Ferreira also played quite a few of the shows at The Stone for Berne’s 60th birthday last year.

Cut-and-pasted directly from Berne’s web site (screwgunrecords.com), here’s the Snakeoil itinerary:

April 21 : New York NY, Jazz standard
April 24 : Philadelphia PA, Barnes Museum
April 25 : Baltimore MD, an Die Musik
April 26 : Washington DC, Bohemian Caverns
April 28 : Buffalo NY, Hallwalls
April 29 : Toronto ON, Music Gallery
May 3 : Berkeley CA, Berkeley Arts Festival
May 4 : Seattle WA, Royal Room
May 5 : Portland OR, Jimmy Mak’s
May 6 : Sante Fe NM, GiG performance Space
May 7 : Albuquerque NM, The Outpost
May 8 : St. Louis MO, New Music Circle
May 9 : Chicago IL, Constellation
May 10 : Detroit MI, Trinosophes
May 11 : Minneapolis MN, Icehouse

Another Dose of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil — Shadow Man (ECM, 2013)

Tim Berne's Snakeoil: Shadow ManMaybe 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.

Tim Berne Yet Again

My wife gives me a hard time about this: In 1999, we traveled to Europe, and I got to see Tim Berne twice on the trip.

What’s important is that I didn’t create our itinerary. By pure coincidence, our three-week trip crossed Berne’s path two times. It helped that this was my wife’s first time in Europe, so we were sticking to the big cities — but that’s never been enough explanation for her. She still calls shenanigans on it.

She’s not a fan of avant-jazz but she knew Berne’s name well by then. She knew I couldn’t pass this up. She came with me to see the Bloodcount quartet in Munich, and a week or so later, I ventured out alone to see Berne play duo with guitarist Marc Ducret outside Paris, at Les Instants Chavirés.

This was part of an unusual streak. My first six Tim Berne shows were in six different cities, only one of them in the Bay Area. Even more random than the European trip was the time I had to travel to Denver — the only time I’ve ever been to the city, as opposed to the airport — and Tim Berne was doing a one-off gig in Colorado Springs, on a night when I could make the drive in my company-subsidized rental car. That’s the kind of luck I’ve had. Drives my wife nuts.

Snakeoil: Promo pic used for postcard fliers for the Yoshi’s show. Source: Yoshi’s site; click to go there.

“Luck” is the right word, because while my first Berne concert did happen to be in San Francisco, we don’t often get chances to see downtown NYC musicians. For obvious reasons. It’s one thing for them to hit Philly, New York, and Boston even for sparsely attended gigs. Flying to San Diego in hopes of playing to 20 people, then driving yourself eight hours to Oakland for the next night’s show — that’s a whole other proposition.

Still, it’s not impossible. Berne had already arranged some dates before signing his record deal with ECM for Snakeoil (reviewed here). So, he’d done the legwork, but having ECM’s backing certainly helped in terms of audience size, he says.

So it was that I got to see Berne and Snakeoil play Yoshi’s in Oakland last month. I keyed on in Oscar Noriega‘s clarinet more that I did on my first CD listens.This might have been at the sacrifice of Matt Mitchell‘s piano, which I tended to notice less. Ches Smith, who played in so many Bay Area ensembles before leaving for New York, got huge whoops and applause when he was introduced on stage, and he didn’t disappoint. I don’t think he brought the tympani that he uses on the CD, but he did have a wide array of tricks and traps, including a vibraphone.

I had a great time, of course. It feels like I just saw Berne at Yoshi’s, performing with Michael Formanek. That’s two shows in a span of less than a year, with a longshot possibility of catching the trio of Berne, Jim Black, and Nels Cline in May. Apparently, I’m on another hot streak. Don’t tell my wife.

Yoshi’s doesn’t allow videotaping, so I’m not aware of video of this show. Below are videos of a couple of other recent Snakeoil appearances. The first is of better sound and video quality, despite some moments of shaky camera work. [It’s now been taken down, possibly the result of one too many unauthorized tapings.] The second (“Scanners”) is shorter and more “home-video,” but you get to hear Berne make a crack about cracks about Oregon.

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.