Snakeoil chemistry strong on the punchy Incidentals

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      Opening with a piano motif that sounds like giant ants ascending—or descending; it’s hard to tell—an M.C. Escher staircase, “Sideshow” is most definitely an attention-getter. The central track on Incidentals, the latest ECM release from Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, is also a 26-minute trip that journeys through several different but equally compelling landscapes: a punchy, full-band reiteration of that opening theme; a rattling piano-and-percussion interlude; a moody, reverb-laced bass-clarinet meditation; a surreal processional with strong prog overtones; a tympani solo that sounds like stars exploding; and, finally, a long, slow lament with a bittersweet fade.

      It’s one of the most extraordinary things you’ll hear this year—but you won’t hear it when Snakeoil plays Vancouver. Nor will you hear the ironically bleak “Hora Feliz”, the anarchic nod to bebop that is “Incidentals Contact”, or any of the other tracks on Berne’s new band effort. For the Brooklyn-based saxophonist, it’s already time to move on.

      “Last night was our CD release, and we played all new music at it,” Berne reports, on the line from his home. “That’s why you have to buy the CD if you want to hear it!”

      But there’s a method to this madness. “Usually when I record stuff—and this is a serious response—it’s when I feel like it’s ready to be documented,” Berne explains. “And one of the reasons that I record consistently is to force myself to move on. I always feel like the recorded document is sort of the end of that phase, partly because it is. And the other thing is that you scrutinize the music so much when you’re recording and mixing and making decisions that you usually get sick of it. It just forces me to move on—which shouldn’t be that hard, but I could use all the help I can get.”

      Berne certainly can’t complain about the assistance he receives from the other members of his band, who are no strangers to Vancouver. (Pianist Matt Mitchell’s appearance with Canadian saxophonist Anna Webber was a 2017 Vancouver International Jazz Festival highlight; clarinetist Oscar Noriega joined local guitarist Gordon Grdina for a riotous show in April; and percussionist Ches Smith’s trio with violinist Mat Maneri and pianist Craig Taborn played what might have been the concert of the year at the Western Front last February.) They’re all astonishing musicians, and just as ready as their leader to move boldly forward.

      “The chemistry is strong, and the trust element is there,” Berne reports, “so the most whacked-out shit isn’t going to faze anyone. I mean, last night we did about 12 new tunes that we haven’t played before, and I was shitting in my pants before the gig. And then we did it, and it was like, ‘Oh, yeah. Now I know why we do this!’ ”

      Berne laughs, noting that the chemistry is so strong that it’s hard to tell when Snakeoil is playing one of his tightly written tunes or engaging in collective improvisation.

      “There are people who say they trust the band, and then there are those who actually do,” he elaborates. “And once the musicians know that, it really frees them up. It’s like Miles [Davis]. I mean, that’s the big story about Miles: even though he was a hard-ass, he didn’t tell those guys how to play unless he had to, I’m sure, and that’s kind of how I feel.

      “I want to be surprised on my own gigs,” he adds. “It would be very easy for me to arrange everything into the ground and make sure it worked every time, but for me that’s kind of a cop-out. I get to exert my influence with the composing, so I don’t really need to influence everything. If I want a specific mood I’ll compose something and get that mood—and then I’ll create something that just makes us want to improvise.”

      Tim Berne’s Snakeoil plays the Western Front on Sunday (September 24).