It's been almost exactly four years since Tim Berne's last visit to Boston— March 2008, to be precise, with jazz-prog guitarist David Torn's band Prezens. Prezens was essentially Torn with Berne and Berne's trio-mates at the time: Fender Rhodes keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey. It was a freely improvised squall, anchored by the rockist rhythms of Taborn and Rainey, from which Berne's stern alto and Torn's effects-laden guitar fashioned knotty riffs and slicing lines. It was one of the concerts of the year.
KNOWING THE SCORE As Snakeoil, Matt Mitchell, Oscar Noriega, Tim Berne, and Ches Smith alternate tightly written passages with free improvisation.
Now Berne is back with his latest project, Snakeoil, who have a brand new, homonymous CD on ECM and come to the Regattabar February 16. Berne, for decades a stalwart of NYC's alt-jazz scene, is a powerful saxophonist, with a relentless tone and a knack for spinning out endlessly inventive lines. But it's hard not to think of him as a composer first, if only because his playing is always of a piece with his writing, his unique conception.
That conception is based on a rigorous combination of explicit writing and free improvisation. It's often built on a foundation of tight rhythmic cells — "modular grooves" — and long angular lines, pocked with dissonant intervals, but with a distinctive bebop flow. Despite the hard grooves he favors, Berne often works without a bassist. And yet, it's difficult to think of any jazz band that rocks harder than Berne's.
The new album is something else. Again there are the obsessive modular grooves, and again there is no bass. But there's also a new harmonic spaciousness, provided in large part by pianist Matt Mitchell's uncanny voicings on concert grand — by turns dense and rhapsodic or sparse and atonal. Drummer Ches Smith — who's background includes heavy metal as well as the downtown New York experimental jazz scene — provides grooves but also textural details from a variety of gongs, timpani, and mallets. And Oscar Noriega's B-flat and bass clarinets offer lyrical counterpoint to Berne's more hard-edged attack.
The first tune on Snakeoil, "Simple City," is typical, from Mitchell's hesitant stating of a little minor-tinged four-note theme — a kind of poetic question mark of a phrase — through long, knotty lines for the whole band, to a wonderful moment where we come upon a clearing in the forest, and Noriega issues some pure-toned, woody lyrical jottings on his B-flat clarinet. Dynamic contrast, the thickening and thinning of textures, acceleration and deceleration, movement from tight unison themes and carefully cued entrances and exits to total freedom, and the episodic shifting moods — it's all part of Berne's mis en scène. And he's never done it better
Berne often records his bands live, but he worked with this band for two years — beginning with some sessions with Noriega— before taking them into the studio. It's his first studio recording in seven years. "People are used to things being free or structured," Berne tells me over the phone from New York. "But when it's this intricately written — and then free— it takes a minute to get your bearings. How do you use the written material when it's not specified how you're supposed to use it?"