Album review: Tim Berne’s ‘Snakeoil’


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Tim Berne, ‘Snakeoil’ (ECM)

A fiery saxophonist who came to prominence in the unhinged downtown New York City scene in the ‘80s, Tim Berne superficially doesn’t seem a natural fit with the often contemplative pace of recordings on the German label ECM.


Yet despite Berne’s raucous recent output that included last year’s bracing live set with Nels Cline and Jim Black, ‘The Veil,’ the two seemingly divergent aesthetics merge gracefully on an album that balances lush composition and free expression.

With more than half of its songs flirting with the 15-minute mark, ‘Snakeoil’ has little interest in bite-size statements, preferring to allow Berne and his bandmates ample room to uncover their own paths. On the spacious ‘Spare Parts,’ this translates into Berne alternating with bass clarinetist Oscar Noriega on duets with drummer Ches Smith before the two horn players reunite over a pattering, insistent rhythmic foundation. Elsewhere Berne’s knottier impulses come to the foreground with ‘Not Sure’ and the more frantically paced ‘Scanners,’ which grows steadily more complex around pianist Matt Mitchell’s off-center drive.

The album shows a contemplative side of its own on ‘Spectacle’ and the slow-burning ‘Simple City,’ which finds Berne’s saxophone occasionally recalling the nimble turns of John Lurie. Think of this as Berne uncovering a new way to get downtown.

Tim Berne will perform from ‘Snakeoil’ on Feb. 25 at the Blue Whale, 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St., Suite 301, L.A. 9 p.m., $10,


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-- Chris Barton