CD Review: Tim Berne's Snakeoil Incidentals
[ photo: L- R: Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne, Matt Mitchell ]
Incidentals, recorded in late 2014, consists of five pieces, the first four of which were composed by Mr. Berne.  The fifth, “Prelude One / Sequel Two” was composed by pianist/electronicist Matt Mitchell with Tim Berne. Mr. Berne has expanded the original Snakeoil quartet with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira.

Within jazz and avant-jazz circles, Tim Berne is recognized as a performer and composer who proactively extends the boundaries of musical expression with a devotion to the integrity of his artistic vision.  This self-imposed freedom seems apparent and perhaps exemplary in Incidentals. While I would argue (preferably over a pint) that such a trait is admirable, and perhaps definitory for any true artist, I would argue as well that such integrity often results in an experience inaccessible to all but the most informed aficionados of a genre. This is unfortunate.  With the release of Incidentals, however, Mr. Berne has formed an art object that appears consistent with his musical values, yet could, deservedly, convey his work to a broader audience.

This is not to suggest that Incidentals is an easy listen. It requires attention, discovery, reflection, and a mindset open to a reassessment of the nature of musical form. However, the effort involved yields a substantial return. Mr. Berne elevates the so-called “secondary” elements of music, e.g., timbre, articulation, variations in volume and intensity, etc., to a primary status that achieves parity with organizations of the “primary” elements of pitch and rhythm. Of course, challenges to the hierarchy of music elements predate the Second Viennese School, and similar experiments in jazz began about six decades earlier than the release of Incidentals. However, Mr. Berne and Snakeoil bring parity to the various components of sound-art with a fluency I have rarely heard in contemporary improvised music. It is this sheer quality of musicianship in composition and performance that I believe could attract listeners having little or no experience with avant-garde music forms.

However, the organization of pitch in time is far from overlooked in these compositions. There is an abundance of traditional motivic development throughout Incidentals, albeit within a context that often charts an exotic territory.  Listen, carefully, for the restatement and development of various note-groupings in the initial section of 'Hora Feliz', or the kaleidoscopic polyphony applied to the theme from the composition’s second section.  Listen for this, but do not miss the previously mentioned elements of expression that contribute equally to the structure of the piece. 

The musicianship is exemplary. Messrs. Berne and Noriega have an extraordinary control of their respective instrument’s capacity for diverse timbres, and each is a masterful soloist.  Matt Mitchell colors each composition with a fluency that reflects a gifted command of the piano’s timbral capacity, while Ryan Ferreira offers some “old school” guitar signal processing that contrasts and complements the digital nature of Mr. Mitchell’s electronics.

Finally, the precision of Ches Smith’s drums, his touch and control of timbre, hold the ensemble together with a bond that is, at once, secure as epoxy and fluid as the nature of time itself.

As I reflect upon this review I have concerns that readers might form an impression that Incidentals is academic. In other words, some “thing” to learn from rather than something to enjoy. This is not the case, and the two are inclusive of each. There is meaning in Mr. Berne’s art, and that meaning often reveals itself in a moment of sudden realization. Once understood, that meaning offers great enrichment.

Tim Berne's Snakeoil will have their CD release concert at the Jazz Standard on Wednesday, September 13th with 7:30 and 9:30 shows. $25.  Click here for tickets.

“Hora Feliz”
“Stingray Shuffle”
“Incidentals Contact”
“Prelude One / Sequel Two”

Tim Berne           Alto Saxophone
Oscar Noriega         Clarinet and Bass Clarinet
Ryan Ferreira           Electric Guitar
Matt Mitchell Piano and Electronics
Ches Smith           Drums, Vibraphone, Percussion, and Timpani

Recorded December 2014 at "The Clubhouse" in Rhinebeck, NY
Engineer: D. James Goodwind
Produced by David Torn

The music is characteristically action-packed in the Berne tradition: powerful, dynamic, often fast-moving - yet also very clear in all its teeming detail.
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