Live preview: Tim Berne's Snakeoil

A spiky outsider partners with an esteemed jazz imprint.

Tim Berne's Snakeoil

Tim Berne's Snakeoil Photograph: John Rogers / ECM Records

Since he founded Screwgun Records in 1996, Tim Berne has inhabited his own island nation. The saxist's label champions a handmade aesthetic: unadorned, even willfully raw recordings packaged in cardboard sleeves and annotated with Berne's caustic one-liners. Berne has partnered with other imprints during the Screwgun era, though none with as wide a reach as ECM, arguably the most prestigious still-active jazz label and the backer of Berne's latest, Snakeoil. The team-up isn't exactly a shock, since Berne has made a few sideman appearances on ECM in recent years. Still, you wonder: How will this spiky outsider mesh with an entity given to borderline-mystical austerity?

Interestingly, Snakeoil does present an ECM-ized Berne. The record's chamber-music-like hush has reared its head on previous Berne recordings, but rarely as prominently as it does here. Fortunately, this reframing doesn't register as a compromise, partly because it highlights the strengths of Berne's remarkable supporting cast, all on hand for tonight's gig. Drummer Ches Smith (of Xiu Xiu, Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, Secret Chiefs and tons more) functions as a one-man percussion section, as on "Spare Parts," where he moves from rumbling mallet work to chattery bongos and finally a cathartic full-kit backbeat. On "Yield," clarinetist Oscar Noriega adds gorgeously ghostly shadings to one of Berne's trademark robot-ballet themes, while pianist Matt Mitchell sustains the mood of uneasy repose. Overall, Snakeoil reaffirms that at its best, the artist-label union isn't just a business deal; it's a joint creative leap.

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