Alto saxophonist Tim Berne finally relented and signed on to do his first solo album for the ECM Records label, called Snakeoil. Though he's recorded as a sideman on a few releases for the label (David Torn's Prezens and Michael Formanek's The Rub and Spare Change), this is the first time he's calling the shots, and working with a new quartet that includes clarinet player Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, and drummer Ches Smith. What he's done here is hit an absolute home run, as Snakeoil is one of those albums that reaches for and grabs your very soul right from the opening notes, a wonderful marriage of structured jazz, avant-garde , and some free form, that will thrill any fan of the genre.
Make no mistake, Snakeoil is by no means an easy going jazz listen. This is dense, adventurous, often times dark, haunting music, but that's what is so great about it. "Simple City" sets the tone, a chilling number that contains some of the most mournful sax cries from Berne, weaving clarinet from Noriega, majestic piano courtesy of Mitchell, and restrained swells of drums & percussion from Smith. It's wonderfully orchestrated and dramatic, and a piece not to be missed. The quartet lurches into complex, almost free-form jazz on the quirky "Scanners", a total 'about face' from the opening track but just as enjoyable for many different reasons. The counterpoint between the sax, clarinet, and piano is just outstanding, so if you love complex, adventurous jazz, you'll need to experience this one. Berne squawks and squonks with reckless abandon, and Smith is attacking his kit with a blind fury. Very impressive. "Spare Parts" is melodic, flowing jazz, led by Berne's sax explorations and some grandiose piano from Mitchell, and "Yield" sees the quartet return to the mysterious, dark styled tones of the opening cut, as the song slowly builds and builds with dramatic restraint before the closing moments are shattered by wild bursts from Berne and crashing drums & piano. Controlled fury? Certainly, and well done. On "Not Sure" the band mixes intricate avant-garde with meditative jazz, Noriega leading the charge with his clarinet while Mitchell's piano provides the undercurrent. The killer closer "Spectacle" features the entire band chipping in for a full frontal assault of dramatic, ominous soundscapes, a song fully living up to the 'ECM tradition' in every way. This is dark, free-form jazz at its best.
If ECM has releases like this up their sleeve for 2012, it's going to be a great year indeed. Tim Berne has plenty of recordings under his belt in his long career, but he's got something to really be proud of here. Any jazz fan NEEDS this in their collection. Outstanding!
1) Simple City
3) Spare Parts
5) Not Sure