While alto saxophonist Tim Berne has spent a hefty chunk of his alt-jazz career skirting around the edges of the majors, his emergent through-composed music has safely found haven on his own micro imprint, Screwgun Records, for the last several years. Plus, recently Clean Feed dredged up adventurous unreleased material to add to Berne’s other worldly jazz oeuvre. All of which makes his label debut as leader on ECM, Snakeoil, a pleasant series of unpredictable twists and turns. According to album notes, it’s Berne’s first studio album in eight years, and it features his new quartet comprising clarinetist/bass clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith.
While there are the requisite quiet moments of rumination that ECM is best known for,Bernegracefully and frequently abandons the sentiment. He finds the space to blitz and dash through the hour-plus collection that features six lengthy, large-canvas compositions, each fused with equal parts written structure and free improvisation that ranges from lyrical to dissonant. This is pure journey music with passages of serenity dissolving and exploding into muscular sax and urgent clarinet voicings. In the midst of it all are pockets of harmonic beauty, especially throughout the leadoff tune, “SimpleCity,” and the beauty of the bunch, the endsong “Spectacle.”
Noteworthy is Berne’s penchant for mercurial whimsy, especially on the unbridled “Scanners,” which opens in a swirling dance-like vein before settling into a slow mode of searching expression, and the spirited “Not Sure,” that likewise starts with fast-paced playfulness before Berne muses above sparkling piano comping.