Gig review: Tim Berne’s Snakeoil

The Vortex, London, UK
Reviewed by Alex Roth

It could be argued that the ensembles led over the years by New York saxophonist and composer Tim Berne have become as pivotal to the contemporary jazz scene as were those led by Miles Davis from the ‘50s onwards. Previous and current bandmates include some of the leading lights in creative music of the last three decades: Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Bobby Previte, Drew Gress, Mark Dresser and so many more.

His latest entourage, appearing under the name Snakeoil, includes Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith on an array of percussion instruments. Lacking the electrified sound of some of Berne’s other groups (that often include guitarist Marc Ducret and/or keyboardist Craig Taborn), Snakeoil nevertheless packed a mighty punch at their UK debut to a full house at the Vortex in Dalston. (It speaks volumes for the influence that Berne exerts internationally that many in the audience were acclaimed musicians themselves.)

Instantly striking a rapport with the crowd through his dry wit, Berne’s alto featured early in the opening piece after a densely contrapuntal head, his spidery riffs giving way to a duet between Mitchell’s piano and Smith’s congas. Immediately it was clear that this was music shaped from vivid contrasts, further exemplified by the ensuing passage featuring Noriega and Smith, with wailing clarinet and hand percussion conjuring folk-like flavours that haven’t been as prominent in Berne’s writing until now (though the inflections of the blues have always been a key reference point).

The next piece, Spectacle, presented a similarly bold juxtaposition, this time between the reedsmen’s altissimo shrieks and Mitchell’s more tonal, even pastoral, harmony. The effect was startlingly beautiful, and Mitchell then began the final piece of the first set with a gripping piano solo, brilliantly navigating his way around a seemingly accidental preparation inside the piano (so well, in fact, that it was unclear whether or not the mic cable had been deliberately placed on the strings!). Berne then resumed the limelight for a blistering alto solo  with hard-hitting ensemble punctuations that led seamlessly into a multi-textured percussion feature, before Mitchell and Noriega (on bass clarinet now) ended the set with a wonderfully poised duet, the latter’s lines weaving with balletic agility around the pianist’s pan-tonal figures.

The second set, featuring such titles as Jesus Christ Mini-bar and Sketches of Pain raised the stakes even higher, immediately launching into the kind of slow, twisted funk that Berne has made his own, the sudden dynamic shifts of his writing expertly executed by the ensemble.

Cornered contained the most exhilarating exchange between bass clarinet and percussion, Noriega once again playing with both poise and urgency, Smith making full use of his extensive set up of gongs, cymbals and hand drums but never drawing too much attention away from flow of the music. Again, Mitchell had the last say with a solo passage so stunningly reflective that it somehow managed further to intensify the breathless jaunt that preceded it.

The intensity never let up, even during the tonal landscape of the final piece, whose achingly beautiful theme brought elements of the blues to the fore before being absorbed into a cathartic flow of white noise from Mitchell and Smith (which one audience member later described as the sound of the Earth being born!), ending with a gorgeous sax/clarinet unison melody that could have been the home-coming theme of an epic hero.

Apparently Snakeoil’s return to the Vortex the following night was going to feature a completely different set of music, but if this invigorating display of collective creativity was anything to by on the first date of their European tour, Berne et al will take the continent by storm.

Categories: Live review

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