Tim Berne Quartet
Friday, February 17
Better than: Waiting for Tibetan independence.
Given the charges of charlatanism that have at times plagued jazz expressionists, it would seem that altoist Tim Berne was engaging in a bit of mischief when he named his latest album Snakeoil. The title, with its links to the rambling con artists of another century, becomes even more ironic by being hitched to Berne’s debut for ECM Records, the Germany-based Universal subsidiary whose roster, exemplified by pianist Keith Jarrett, would no doubt pass a Dave Grohl litmus test and has the trophy case of non-pop Grammys to show for it.
Snakeoil isn’t Berne’s first album for a major label; the saxist’s initial shot at the big time came back in 1987, when former Jeff Buckley guitarist/record exec Gary Lucas slipped the album Fulton Street Maul by his onetime bosses at Columbia Records. But the prevailing ethos of his 30-plus year career is DIY—he took up sax at age 20, and has released many discs on his own Screwgun imprint.
Unveiling the new music Friday night in the Rubin Museum’s acoustically correct basement space, Berne’s short, well-paced set may have also dispelled a myth about creative control at ECM. If Snakeoil is an anomaly in Berne’s catalog, it’s not necessarily by virtue of labelhead Manfred Eicher’s legendary sound signature, in which liberal use of reverb and cathedral echo become the sonic equivalent of gauzy lens filters. It’s true that during the opener, “Spectacle,” the inherent soulfulness of Oscar Noriega’s velvet-y bass clarinet was instantly more apparent than it is on the disc, a perfect foil for the ragged cry of Berne’s alto. About a decade ago, however—well before ECM was in his sights—the bandleader began making piano and keyboards his chordal instruments of choice after decades spent leaving that to cello and/or guitar (Bill Frisell was an early compatriot). Like many of Berne’s melodies, “Spectacle” gathered strength in wave-like cycles both written and improvised, with sensitive pianist Matt Mitchell alternately harmonizing with the reedists or offering counterpoint.
The bigger difference, however, is in the area of pulse. Unlike Berne’s previous drummers, Ches Smith seems to be employed mainly for color and texture rather than propulsion. Over the course of Berne’s extended pieces (every one except the encore, his former boss Paul Motian’s atmospheric “Psalm,” lasted close to 10 minutes), the drummer made liberal use of the percussion array around his trap set: conga to mark time on a particularly fast piano passage on “Scanners”; vibes during “Spare Parts”; various bowed gongs and jingles at beautifully calibrated intervals throughout. As Berne’s compositions progressed suitelike from composed to extemporaneous passages, a formula revealed itself. There was no shortage of bombast from Smith’s toms and kick-drum, but backbeat was saved for the most climactic moments, as the lines of Berne and Noriega (who doubled on clarinet) soared and intertwined. In addition to being bold and unexpected, this move also put an unique twist on Berne’s debt to his late mentor Julius Hemphill, whose blue-inflected choruses often implied momentum with nary a drummer in sight. It’s as if Berne was allowing different signposts to create an oddball chamber blues.
Perhaps nowhere did this become more spiritually relevant than on “Simple City,” the piece that partook of the Rubin Museum custom of projecting a work of art each bandleader has chosen from the archive’s collection of East Asian treasures. In lieu of a thousand-year-old mural or antique, Berne chose a mid-20th-century modernist painting of a mother and child. As the group’s interpretation snaked past the 18-minute mark, it was clear that, like the painting, his new concept was blissfully applying many hallmarks of earliest efforts. Berne’s solos retained their angularity, all the while making way for the ruminative structures advanced by Mitchell’s piano and Smith’s accents. It underlined the moxie of a musician who’s evolving, but ever so subtly.
Critical bias: I can be a pushover for any musician audibly indebted to Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. and Blue Boyé.
Random notebook dump: It’s kinda weird seeing no mics onstage, but the Rubin Museum’s acoustics truly render them unnecessary.