Not One Bit Slimey

Time Berne is one of the more considered new-thing saxophonists, as likely to reveal intellect as emotion. The six-pieces on Snake Oil, the first session under his own name for the European ECM label, are thoughtful and varied in intent. Berne’s compositions make for shared efforts, giving the quartet common purpose while encouraging individual freedom. The horns – Berne’s alto and Oscar Noriega’s clarinets –seek complement rather than opposition, stating lines in unison or wonderfully blended counterpoints. On “Simple City,” pianist Matt Mitchell, playing alone, strikes a Socratic tone as he introduces the recording, posing questions soon answered by Ches Smith’s expository percussion.  Berne jumps into the debate with an insistent argument that’s coolly presented. “Spare Parts” is a field trip to a strange destination, the horns gawking at every turn. Pianist Mitchell wanders behind them, circling like a toddler, until the sound falls into a three-way call-and-response of increasing volume and complexity. On “Yield,” a two-tone, back-and-forth figure from Berne and Mitchell sets up Noriega for a merry-go-round ride on clarinet followed by Berne’s most aggressive play of the album.  “Not Sure” finds Berne strong and only a bit ironic. He doesn’t do anything flashy on his instrument – despite what the recording’s title suggests, he has nothing to sell—but he makes his point, sometimes beautifully, often emphatically. Unlike a lot of outside music, you come away from Snake Oil feeling you understand exactly what the band wanted to say.–Cabbage Rabbit

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