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Tim Berne’s Snakeoil

September 15, 2017 @ 12:00 am - 3:00 am

“Few musicians working in or around jazz over the last 30 years have developed an idiomatic signature more distinctive than Tim Berne.”

— New York Times

Jazz at Atlas proudly presents the legendary saxophonist and composer Tim Berne leading his group Snakeoil. Touring in support of their new album on ECM Records, Incidentals, Snakeoil features Berne on alto saxophone, Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano and electronics, and Ches Smith on drums and percussion. Tim Berne’s Snakeoil will perform on Thursday, September 14 at 8 PM at Atlas Studios as part of the Jazz at Atlas program. General admission will be $20 at the door. Atlas Studios is located at 11 Spring Street in Newburgh, NY. Ample onsite parking is available.

Tim Berne has been described as “a saxophonist and composer of granite conviction” by The New York Times. Incidentals is the fourth album from his spirited Snakeoil band and the second (following on from 2015’s You’ve Been Watching Me) to feature the quintet line-up in which his core group with clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith is augmented by guitarist Ryan Ferreira. The music is characteristically action-packed in the Berne tradition: powerful, dynamic, often fast-moving – yet also very clear in all its teeming detail. “We somehow achieved more sonic space by adding another player,” the bandleader notes wonderingly.

Jazz at Atlas is a cooperative project of writer, musician and multimedia artist James Keepnews, and music researcher, radio host and producer Ben Young. Along with presenting performances by world-renowned creative musicians, JAA will also be offering listening sessions, dialogues with artists and classes covering the entire spectrum of creative music in all its varied manifestations around the world and throughout its history.


Incidentals is the fourth ECM album from alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s dynamic Snakeoil band. Complete and self-contained, it can also be considered a partner volume to the 2015 release You’ve Been Watching Me, further documenting a period in the band’s life in which the energetic core group of Berne, fellow reedman Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer/percussionist/vibraphonist Ches Smith was augmented by guitarist Ryan Ferreira, whose textural playing and floating, ambient sound-colors both thickened the plot and leavened the density.

“We somehow achieved more sonic space by adding another player,” Berne notes wonderingly. Ferreira had been introduced to Berne by Matt Mitchell, guitarist and pianist having attended the same music school. “I’m always on the lookout for guitar players”, says Berne, “always looking for new blood.” He and Ferreira played duo for about a year, improvising freely, before the guitarist was invited to join a Snakeoil concert. “I gave him a great pile of music, and he learned it. The job required a player who was content not to be a soloist. It was almost like having a far-out keyboard player in the band, and it gave me a few more options, compositionally.” There was also a wish to subvert and challenge the modus operandi of the group. Over several years, the four piece Snakeoil had become very tight, “and when something starts to work well I like to throw something else in, to see if I still have the touch, and just to see what happens.”

However, the first guitar sounds heard on Incidentals derive from another source, as producer David Torn’s hands-on approach to the work extends to picking up his own instrument. Thereafter, things happen fast. Group improvisation leads towards a dramatic first theme, then into and out of vamps, until the listener is left, as is often the case with Berne pieces, in a new and unfamiliar space. Recapitulation is rare in his tunes: the music keeps on moving, dodging, swerving to other destinations. To follow the action in “Hora Feliz”, Berne recommends zooming in on Snakeoil’s prodigiously gifted pianist, Matt Mitchell: “A lot of the transitions are on Matt’s shoulders. If you focus on him through the whole improv section here you can hear the amazing way he manages to develop and set up the ending of the piece with his improvising.

“I’ve always liked the idea of steering people away from the material we start with. With the writing, it’s almost done the way I improvise – a lot of motives, a lot of melodic improvising, tossing little thematic things around and developing them. That’s part of the story, anyway. Some of that also comes from seeing the AACM guys when I was starting out, and Julius Hemphill, too – in their worlds, improvisation was often a collective and amorphous thing, rather than a rhythm section playing a groove with a solo on top of it. Very little of that music was head-solo-head format, and I think that stayed with me. A lot of the suite-like pieces I make come out of not wanting to repeat improvising ideas. If you’re improvising and you know you’re going to something completely different you have to think a little more compositionally than if you’re just playing a solo and going back to the same head.”

The trajectory of the 26-minute epic “Sideshow” – with another guitar cameo for Torn at its climax, weaving between thunderous timpani and over the twinned reeds of Noriega and Berne – all but defies itemization. Truly event-packed, it was once even more so. Originally “Sideshow” was part of an hour-long piece, the other half being “Small World In A small Town”, already documented on You’ve Been Watching Me. Berne: “I didn’t want to use up a whole album with one large composition, so I split it in half. This was something we’d already successfully tried live, dividing the material over a couple of sets.”

Not everything in the Snakeoil book is obsessively complex. Berne says that “Stingray Shuffle” begins with a composed statement which, after the head, blossoms into textural collective improvisation, subtly shifting layers of sound against which Berne and Noriega play prettily.

“Incidentals Contact” comes flying out of the starting gate, its strong rhythmic drive established by the whole ensemble while Ches Smith is still, insistently, playing vibes: “Many bands will use the drums to set up the time. I’m adamant about that not happening, ever, because it’s too obvious. Ches is really great at ignoring us as long as possible, and the more freedom you give him, the more interesting the tension gets. Quite often in this group, you’ll find everyone playing rhythm except the drummer.”

“Prelude One/Sequel Too” folds together two pieces, the first a futurist stepwise construction made stranger by the “weird high part” which Matt Mitchell contributed to the composition. After open improvisation it segues into “Sequel Too”, based upon the same written material as the title track of You’ve Been Watching Me. Interpreted as an acoustic guitar piece in its previous incarnation, “Sequel Too” sounds radically different when voiced for the group and develops as a powerful, emotionally-expressive feature for Berne’s alto and Smith’s free, slashing drums.


Tim Berne has been declared “a saxophonist and composer of granite conviction” by The New York Times. Acclaim for the first, eponymous ECM album from Berne’s quartet Snakeoil came from far and wide, with The Guardian calling it “an object lesson in balancing composition, improvisation and the tonal resources of an acoustic band.” With the release of his second ECM album, Shadow Man, All About Jazz affirmed Snakeoil as “Berne’s most impressively cohesive group yet.”

Since learning at the elbow of St. Louis master Julius Hemphill in the ’70s, the Syracuse, NY-born Berne has built an expansive discography as a leader. In his ensembles over the past few decades, he has worked with improvisers including Joey Baron, Django Bates, Jim Black, Nels Cline. Mark Dresser, Marc Ducret, Michael Formanek, Drew Gress, Ethan Iverson, Dave King, Herb Robertson, Chris Speed, Steve Swell, Bobby Previte, Hank Roberts, Tom Rainey and Craig Taborn. As a sideman, Berne has made ECM appearances on albums by Formanek (The Rub and Spare Change, Small Places, The Distance) and David Torn (prezens). The New York Times summed him up by saying: “Few musicians working in or around jazz over the last 30 years have developed an idiomatic signature more distinctive than Tim Berne.”

Snakeoil, in the original Berne-Noriega-Mitchell-Smith line-up, tours North America through September and October, and plays European dates in November.

Further ECM recordings featuring Tim Berne are in preparation, including an album with the Sun of Goldfinger trio with David Torn and Ches Smith.


September 15, 2017
12:00 am - 3:00 am
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Jazz at Atlas


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11 Spring St
Newburgh, NY 12550 United States
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