Saturday, March 10, 2018

Voyages: Tim Berne's Snakeoil and the art of the musical journey

Photo: Caterina Di Perri

I keep coming back to Tim Berne. One of the first jazz shows I saw upon arriving in New York 20 years ago was Berne's band Paraphrase with Drew Gress and Tom Rainey at Tonic — I think Tony Malaby was sitting in that night. I was particularly mesmerized by what Rainey was doing — I'd never heard anyone play drums that abstractly yet with that much conviction — but I became an instant fan of all the musicians onstage.

Once I was on board with Tim Berne's music, I kept up with his many projects as much as I could. I particularly loved, and still do, the various Berne/Rainey bands: Hard Cell with Craig Taborn (their 2001 album The Shell Game is simply one of my favorite jazz records ever, with epic compositions and a huge sound courtesy of frequent Berne collaborator David Torn); Big Satan with Marc Ducret (check out the marvelous Souls Saved Hear, from 2003); and Science Friction, a hybrid of the two aforementioned bands (their 2003 live double album The Sublime And, now available digitally in two separate parts, is an absolute feast of gritty yet exacting contemporary jazz).

There are so many other great projects and records — I highly recommend browsing Berne's extensive Bandcamp site, where he's offering not just many albums originally released on his own Screwgun label, but otherwise out-of-print gems that span his nearly 40-year discography. (The mid-to-late '80s small-group records, such as the mighty Fulton Street Maul, are another crucial subset.) I haven't heard 'em all, but I've heard a hell of a lot, and I consider every single one I own to be an essential item in my collection.

I'm in the midst of a heavy Berne listening phase, and after revisiting those magical Rainey-era records, I've moved on to the more recent stuff, specifically the four studio albums by Berne's current working band, Snakeoil. Like pretty much every Berne project, Snakeoil both has its own distinct identity and embodies key traits common to his various bands. After you've listened to enough of this stuff, it's fascinating to hear how the basic Berne principles carry over to the different groups.

One of the things that I love the most about Tim Berne's music is the way it moves, or maybe I should say, the way it unfolds. Tim Berne's music has a narrative quality that I don't hear in a lot of jazz. As much as I can get down with the head-solos-head format, or full-on free improv, a lot of the jazz that moves me most takes a more compositional approach. Though some Tim Berne pieces do follow a conventional head-improv-head type of structure, a lot of his music unfolds in more complex ways. For one thing, his pieces very rarely end up where they start: a theme or texture is established and, often very gradually, a new one takes its place and we're on to a different chapter in the piece. There's a very subtle and complex stitching together of composition and improvisation, a play between those two core jazz elements, that occurs in his work, that to me, makes his music especially gripping. Since he never seems to take the shape of a given piece for granted, I find that I'm always alert when listening to Tim Berne: A dizzyingly complex theme might emerge from what a few minutes ago sounded like total abstraction, or vice versa. There's always a progression, often a linear, almost novelistic one — it's not about endlessly cycling through one form; it's about setting up one form, exploring it, abstracting it and moving on to a new one; or, in a favorite Berne tactic, starting from a seemingly free place and then gradually moving toward a breathtakingly tight, often very funky theme statement, as though the structure of the piece were like a vise closing in imperceptible increments.

I touched on this idea in a 2008 DFSBP post re: a killer Bloodcount show at the Stone:

"... I came up with a phrase that I think describes Bloodcount's concept adequately: (ahem) gradual coalescence. basically what I'm trying to capture here is this phenomenon in the group's music wherein one of Berne's patented prog-funk themes sort of appears on the horizon of an improvisation and moves closer and closer and closer until, bam, it's right in front of your face and the band is absolutely slamming away at it in perfect unison."
So that play of abstraction and rigor is all over these Snakeoil records, which contain some of the most elaborate and ambitious Berne works I've heard. As is often the case with Berne, the longest pieces are among the most captivating. Two that are really grabbing me right now are "Small World in a Small Town," from 2015's You've Been Watching Me and "Sideshow," from 2017's Incidentals. (Quick note: The two preceding discs, 2013's Shadow Man and 2012's Snakeoil, are also excellent, but I think the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira to the core group — of Berne, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith — on Incidentals and You've Been Watching Me only strengthens an already outstanding band.)

Often in Snakeoil, you will hear a crisp group theme statement right off the bat, but the 18-minute "Small World" starts out in more spare fashion, with a lyrical, initially ballad-like Mitchell/Berne duet that really lets you savor the tart, singing quality of Berne's gorgeous alto playing. As evidenced by last year's F├śRAGE disc (a Mitchell solo album featuring various Berne themes), these two have a profound musical connection, and it's a treat to hear them soaring together in a passage of unguarded lushness and beauty. Around 3:50 Mitchell sets up a steady quarter-note cadence as Berne continues to improvise; and around 5:17, Smith (on vibes) and Ferreira join in, mirroring Mitchell's pulse. The piece's first theme statement occurs around 5:32, but crucially, Berne keeps soloing for a bit after Smith and Ferreira enter, creating this lovely sort of segue effect. In other words, the improv doesn't suddenly cut to a theme statement, it sort of cross-fades, so you get that moment of contrast and fruitful clash just before full-on order takes over. The theme gradually grows denser and more involved, with Snakeoil sounding like a miniature chamber orchestra, and Smith begins switching between vibes and brushes on his snare.

Then at 7:50, there's a stark textural change, as the ensemble strips down to piano, with Mitchell still implying the upbeat cadence from the prior theme; drums, with Smith switching to sticks and playing delicately on cymbals; and guitar, with Ferreira picking out fragile-sounding notes. Almost imperceptibly, around 8:15, Oscar Noriega enters on clarinet, playing with remarkable subtlety and fluidity. The band falls away entirely and Noriega plays alone, his supple sound suspended in mid-air like some floating gossamer thread. Mitchell and Smith return to add faint accents, and again, the ensemble texture is as much "chamber music" as jazz. Around 12:40, almost slyly, Mitchell breaks into a new cadence, a waltz-like rhythm that Smith picks up on brushes; meanwhile, Noriega continues to solo, much as Berne had in that beginning duet. The rhythm becomes bluesier, with Smith digging into the groove, and at 14:15, Berne reenters with a fresh theme statement, soon joined by Ferreira. Again, we get this ear-catching cross-fade, with Noriega continuing to flutter over top as the theme coalesces. Now Ferreira moves into the role of texturalist, adding this sort of abstract sparkle effect in the right channel. The full band sort of struts its way to a crescendo, until everyone cuts out but Mitchell and Smith, who trail off dreamily.

There's just so much event packed into this piece, so much of a sense of musical ground being covered, such an artful weave of composition and improvisation, and of a sense of musical chapters beginning and concluding almost imperceptibly. It's all blurred together in the Berne playbook, with solos sort of floating over those demarcation points so that you always have this fruitful static between what's mapped out and what's spontaneous.

"Sideshow," the 26-minute centerpiece of Incidentals, is similarly event-packed, but the piece takes a different tack. Here, we get a dense theme statement right at the top, set up first by Mitchell in complex two-hand formation, with Berne and Ferreira joining in soon after and Smith following. The band makes its way to a classic Tim Berne math-groove around the 2:00 mark, a theme that swoops and darts and mutates in head-spinning fashion without losing its sense of badass momentum. (Noriega has entered by this point, holding down the low-end with chugging bass-clarinet.) Berne drops out, leaving the rest of the band to sort of boogie down on the prog-funk cadence they've set up — Mitchell gets seriously rumbling and bluesy here. Around 4:50, though, the groove starts to splinter and decelerate, and abstraction takes over: Mitchell and Smith (I think playing bongos here) darting around one another, Noriega adding soft, swelling, fluttering phrases. The pianist and bass-clarinetist are soon dueting, playing a sort of dark, oozing ballad — the overall feel couldn't be more different from where the piece started — to which Smith adds soft cymbal scrapes. As in "Small World in Small Town," around 7:50 Mitchell almost unassumingly begins to lay down a rolling cadence as the others continue to explore a sort of free ballad space. Then Berne enters around 8:19, joining up with Mitchell for a new theme statement as Noriega flutters freely, with faint accents from Smith on vibes. Again, we're in that sort of suspended space between composition and improvisation. By 9:30, though, Noriega has joined in on the theme, with Smith and Ferreira now playing the role of tasteful chaos agents.

And then another shift around 10:50, as the ensemble thins out and Berne blows faintly against a humming background of electronics, presumably textural effects from Ferreira. There's a feeling of almost total ambient stillness here, of a whole new musical zone briefly opening. Around 13:00, Mitchell and Smith enter and engage Ferreira in some free trio play, but soon, Mitchell is laying down a new cadence to which Smith gradually adds a softly strutting backbeat. Ferreira continues to sculpt weird sound shapes as the groove grows more and more funky. Berne enters at 15:48 and locks in with Mitchell; Ferreira keeps soloing but seems to be gradually drawn in to the band's orbit, until around the 17:00 mark, the full band is navigating a lush, elaborate, almost celebratory new theme. Smith switches from drums to vibes as the band makes one last go-round through the passage, and then another sudden change, as everyone drops out but Mitchell and Smith (playing both cymbals and vibes), dueting in spare, abstract fashion. Mitchell then goes quiet, leaving Smith to play a sparse quasi–drum solo, alternating tight bongo flurries with what sound like mallet-struck, tympani-like booms on a low tom-tom (or maybe even the bass drum). There's a sort of textural halo here that I think is coming from Ferreira; overall his ability to add extremely subtle shading is a huge asset to the band. (Mitchell also contributes electronics on this record, so some of what I'm attributing to guitar could also be him.)

At around 21:30, Smith hints at a new cadence, and Mitchell, Berne and Ferreira enter about 20 seconds later with the piece's final theme, a slowly unfolding dirge. Ferreira plays along but adds a sort of running psychedelic commentary. His contributions and Smith's become denser and more aggressive, sort of battering and washing over the calm theme statement, and the band sounds like it's at war with itself. [Note: Matt Mitchell helpfully informs me that David Torn also plays guitar on the outro here too!] Until the last minute or so, when Smith drops out, and Berne, Mitchell, Noriega and Ferreira make one last evanescent pass through the theme.

I obviously encourage you to take these journeys yourself. These Snakeoil records are long and information-packed, and I've sometimes found that I get more mileage out of close listening to individual pieces, which are often themselves long and information-packed, rather than trying to tackle the full LPs in one go. Whatever your listening approach, I think these records demonstrate incredibly well what an artful and accomplished writer, bandleader and just overall sound sculptor Tim Berne is — and how he's still pushing into new territory in this phase of his career. When I listen, I can hear him constantly fighting against predictable, conventional ways of organizing a piece of so-called jazz. He seems intent on utilizing every possible approach, from the most meticulously arranged, virtuosically executed full-ensemble passage to the sparest, most abstract wisp of an improvisation from one or two band members, and intent on combining and contrasting these approaches within the compositions so that you never know quite where you're headed, but you know that you're headed somewhere. To fill up, say, 18 or 26 minutes of a listener's time and to sustain a compelling narrative arc, to provide enough textural contrast that the journey never seems tedious, is a serious accomplishment. I would never argue for some kind of hierarchy, that a long-form, linear, narrative approach is somehow superior to a more conventional head-solos-head one, for example; I'm just saying that in the right hands, the former can make for a thrilling alternative.

In any idiom, I love concision and directness, as in another recent listening obsession, the early works of AC/DC; but I also love ambition and scope and a more searching, intuitive way of getting from point A to point B (and in Berne's case, points C, D, E and so forth), as in the work of Tool, who I gushed about on DFSBP in February, or King Crimson, whose '80s album I've been savoring. I hope Tim Berne wouldn't mind my aligning him with the latter camp, or, more broadly, a genre-transcendent "prog" philosophy. In my mind, that doesn't rule out, say, gnarly aggression or extreme funkiness or any of the other key Berne traits. It's only to say that, as a musical thinker, he seems to like to consider all the possibilities, and to take each mood or strategy or configuration or texture or structure as far as his imagination — and the abilities of his collaborators, which in the case of Snakeoil, are pretty much limitless — will allow within the scope of a different piece, and to use the art of skillful arrangement (the cross-fade, the gradual coalescence, etc.) to always keep you just destabilized enough, immersed, yes, but never too settled because there always the possibility of a shift on the horizon. His music has been taking me on voyages like the afore-described for close to 20 years, and may it always be so.


*There's some great nitty-gritty discussion of the way Tim Berne's bands function in part two of Ethan Iverson's essential, career-spanning 2009 Berne interview. This part is a fascinating look at that fundamental tension between composition and improvisation in his work, and how he likes to ride that line as much as possible:

EI:  How do you tell your bands how to find the vamp?

  I don’t. I just say that at some point, “This has to happen.” And, “Don’t telegraph it.  It’s best when it just kind of happens.” When it’s a cue it’s less interesting.

Mike is a genius at this shit. He’ll build the tension as long as possible, so that you can barely stand it. That’s really great. Jim is also great at getting there in a natural way, not like an obvious cut.

That’s the structure of this music: getting from section to section somehow—the rest of it is open.
 I also think this part above is very revealing, in terms of Berne's very specialized rhythmic language:
And then the stuff like Julius [Hemphill] and [Keith] Jarrett, there was just that rhythmic thing that I was really into. It was like soul music and stuff, it really kind of brought all those elements. And it wasn’t swing, really, to me. Even though I loved Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, and those guys, that wasn’t my language, it isn’t now, it may never be. But grooves are something that I like. 

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