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Music Review: Tim Berne – Snakeoil

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Saxophonist Tim Berne is a remarkably prolific musician, with over 40 albums to his name since his 1979 debut, The Five Year Plan. Over the years, he has recorded for a number of labels, including his own Empire as well as Screwgun Records. His latest is titled Snakeoil, for ECM Records. On it he plays well with such artists as Oscar Noriega (clarinet), Mat Mitchell (piano), and Ches Smith (drums and percussion). Snakeoil is an interesting mix of the avant-garde and the accessible, often in the same song.

Take the nearly 14 minute opening track “Simple City.” For one thing, it is anything but simple. My guess is that it’s his ode to his adopted home of New York, and if so, it is a mighty effective one. The track begins with an introductory segment featuring Mitchell’s piano, and some great drum fills from Smith. From there we are into somewhat familiar jazz territory with an accessible (for Berne) melody. The tune closes out with some more piano work, this time minus the drums.

A somewhat similar structure informs the longest piece on the album, “Spare Parts” (14:10). This track opens with Berne’s sax, along with a rolling drum accompaniment from Smith. I actually find that Ches Smith may well be the unsung hero of Snakeoil, he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. The song has a number of segments (if you will), for after this introductory portion we are treated to a very beautiful piano/sax duet, followed by a piano solo, and winding up with a piano/drum duet. An outstanding composition all the way around.

Without a doubt, “Spare Parts” emphasizes what I like best about Snakeoil. The blend of dissonance with the more melodic sounds of Berne’s sax in particular work especially well. My only criticism is in what I consider to be an over reliance on the tried and true “avant-garde” directions he and Mitchell take at times. Varying from the high end to the low end of the tonal palette in rapid succession is an all too obvious choice. Once in a while it is fine, but as practically the only strategy for displaying a willingness to experiment, it becomes a bit tiring.

All in all though, Snakeoil is an excellent introduction to what Tim Berne is all about and as such is recommended.

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