Album at a Glance
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: You’ve Been Watching Me
Stimulating, non-hierarchical group improvisation in music – that which is resistant to sloppiness, incoherency and ultimately, irrelevancy – comes to successful fruition only with the tremendous efforts of highly skilled, compatible and coordinated musicians responding relationally in the moment while intuitively keeping their collective mind focused, attuned and directed ahead. No small degree of study and learning is also necessary to maintain one’s individuality and best sidestep associated performance pitfalls, and for veteran NYC saxophonist Tim Berne, whose group projects past and present represent exciting, shining examples of such practices, it was the tutelage afforded the younger Tim Berne by Black Artists Group (BAG) and World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) founding member and crucial musical forebear Julius Hemphill, an exemplar of this exuberant method of playing, that, in addition to his perseverance, vision and talent, influenced Tim’s subsequent development in both his horn playing and compositional-improvisational methodologies.
You’ve Been Watching Me, a lithe, robust, wryly-titled heavyweight of an album, is the third recording to appear on producer Manfred Eicher’s Munich-based ECM label since 2012 from Snakeoil – Tim Berne (alto) Oscar Noriega (clarinet, bass clarinet), Matt Mitchell (piano, electronics), Ches Smith (drums, vibes, percussion, timpani) – now a newly-minted five-man outfit with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira. In its contrasting use of dense or spacious layered acoustic-electronic sound, bold color spectrum and stimulating group dynamic, the album represents a considerable developmental extension and welcome compliment to 2012’s eponymous group debut recording and 2013’s Shadow Man, both quartet affairs.
The witty, quizzical titling of many of Berne’s compositions, here and more generally, is the first thing to notice before the listening begins, their wordplay enhancing the listening experience well beyond a mere thrill ride.
‘Lost in Redding,’ beginning quick and off-kilter, eventually finds Berne sure-handedly leading the group out of their conundrum. The lengthy, questing ‘Small World in a Small Town’ leads into the dogged, punning insistence of ‘Embraceable Me.’ The sharp elbow blows delivered by ‘Angles’ are softened by the even-briefer title track’s solo acoustic guitar. The remoteness of ‘Semi-Self Detached’ leads into the spry, glib album closer, ‘False Impressions.’
Listeners who fully and sympathetically engage with this music – by turns boisterous, sweeping, moody, spacious, angular but generally free of jaggedness, edgy and tensile, passing fluidly between states of disquieting anticipation and turbulent arousal – will find this album captivating and emotionally persuasive. Indeed, You’ve Been Watching Me pulses with the kind of rare improvisational alchemy that transcends the verbal, instilling a sense of wonder that lingers long after musical conversation yields to silence.
Tim Berne s third ECM album, You've Been Watching Me, sees the saxophonist-composer again leading his ultra-dynamic New York band Snakeoil, but with the quartet now a quintet with the arrival of guitarist Ryan Ferreira, whose sound adds textural allure. The group's 2013 release, Shadow Man, garnered Berne some of the highest praise of his career as a composer and bandleader, with JazzTimes marveling over how his work grows wilder and deeper. The four-star DownBeat review said: This music rocks and thinks, explores, deconstructs and, yes, it swings, in its own identifiably angular, Berne-ian way.
Just as Berne has hit a new peak with his writing on You've Been Watching Me, his band has reached a heightened state of collective interaction, realizing the compositions to a tee. Snakeoil with the leader on alto sax alongside pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, percussionist Ches Smith and Ferreira on electric and acoustic guitars can still be bracingly kinetic. But there is new space in these compositions and more lyrical focus to the improvisations, leading to a dramatic, even cinematic experience in such tracks as 'Embraceable Me.' Put simply, Berne's music has never been richer or more arresting.
TIM BERNE: alto saxophone
Tim Berne (born 1954) is an American jazz saxophonist and composer.
Described by critic Thom Jurek as commanding “considerable power as a composer and … frighteningly deft ability as a soloist”, Berne has composed and performed prolifically since the 1980s. His mainstream success has been limited – Berne recorded two albums for Columbia Records – but he has released a significant body of work over the decades spanning dozens of critically acclaimed recordings.
Though Berne was a music fan, he had no interest in playing a musical instrument until he was in college, when he purchased an alto saxophone. He was more interested in rhythm and blues music – Stax records releases and Aretha Franklin, especially – until he heard Julius Hemphill’s 1972 recording Dogon A.D.
Hemphill was known for his integration of soul music and funk with free jazz. Berne moved to New York City in 1974. There Berne took lessons from Hemphill, and later recorded with him.
Berne has recorded and/or performed with guitarist Bill Frisell, avant-garde composer/sax player John Zorn, violinist Mat Maneri, guitarist David Torn, cellist Hank Roberts, trumpet player Herb Robertson, the ARTE Quartett and as a member of the cooperative trio Miniature.
Recent years have found Berne performing in several different groups with drummers Tom Rainey and Gerald Cleaver, keyboardist Craig Taborn, bassists Michael Formanek and Drew Gress, guitarists Marc Ducret and David Torn, and reeds player Chris Speed.
Berne’s complex, multi-section compositions are often quite lengthy; twenty to thirty minute pieces are not unusual. One critic wrote that Berne’s long songs “don’t grow tiresome. The musicians are brilliantly creative and experienced enough not to get lost in all the room provided by these large time frames.”
MATT MITCHELL: piano & electronics
Matthew Mitchell (born July 19, 1975) is an American jazz pianist and composer. He is also part of the faculty of the New York-based Center for Improvisational Music.
A New York Times reviewer commented in 2011 that Mitchell “feels close to the consensus language of straight-ahead jazz but wants to get beyond it. He does it with hands moving in independent parts, with polyrhythms, with music that approaches the technical level of études but that churns and whirls and leaves spaces for broad interpretation.” The following year, another observed that “Mitchell has his guideposts as an improviser, including Paul Bley and Andrew Hill, pioneers of stubborn poise and self-containment”
CHES SMITH: drums, vibes, percussion & timpani
Ches Smith is an American musician whose primary instruments are drums, percussion, and vibraphone. He writes and performs music in a wide variety of contexts, including solo percussion, experimental rock bands, and small and large jazz ensembles.
Smith has performed with Good For Cows, Marc Ribot, Theory of Ruin, Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3, Xiu Xiu, Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant, Carla Bozulich, Beat Circus, Sean Hayes, Ben Goldberg, 7 Year Rabbit Cycle, Ara Anderson and Fred Frith.
He has also recorded and performed a full-length album of his own solo percussion pieces entitled Congs For Brums (2006). In 2010 he released Congs for Brums ‘Noise to Men’
OSCAR NORIEGA: bass & Bb clarinets
Oscar Noriega is an American multi-instrumentalist and composer, based in Brooklyn since 1992.
He has worked with Lee Konitz, Anthony Braxton, Gerry Hemingway, Dewey Redman and Paul Motion.
Noriega is currently performing with Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Endangered Blood (Chris Speed, Jim Black, Trevor Dunn) and co-lead with Jacob Garchik, the Mexico-inspired Banda De Los Muertos. He plays alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet and drums.
RYAN FERREIRA: electric & acoustic guitars
Ryan Ferreira is a Brooklyn based guitarist/composer who works with ambient sound. In his own words his artistic ambition is to create “ambient soundscapes that provide a comfortable open environment for the listener.”
About Larry Isacson
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