Those who followed me throughout my period of writing for Examiner.com know that I have been following Snakeoil, the band formed by alto saxophonist Tim Berne, pretty much since its birth in February of 2012. That was the month in which ECM released a recording of Berne leading a quartet whose other members were Oscar Noriega (clarinet and bass clarinet), Matt Mitchell (piano and electronics), and Ches Smith (all manner of percussion). The title of that album was Snakeoil, and all subsequent ECM releases identify the band as “Tim Berne’s Snakeoil.”
Recently, Snakeoil has grown into a quintet with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira:
photograph by Nuno Martins, courtesy of ECM
That expansion began with the group's 2015 release, You've Been Watching Me; and it has continued into the latest ECM album, Incidentals, which was released at the beginning of this month. Through this album the attentive listener will recognize this group as one in that boundary area of classification that lies between jazz as chamber music by other means and chamber music as jazz by other means.
Among other attributes, Incidentals offers the longest single track that the group has recorded since its inception. “Sideshow” is about 26 minutes long; and one can readily appreciate it as a journey that leads the listener through an extensive diversity of moods and the rhetorics through which they are expressed. The piece is actually part of a more ambitious hour-long composition in two halves. The first half was “Small World In A Small Town,” which was the longest track on Snakeoil’s preceding album, You’ve Been Watching Me. Nevertheless, “Sideshow” stands quite well on its own; and, by virtues of the smooth transitions through its constituent episodes, the attentive listener is unlikely to be aware of just how long the “clock time” of this piece really is.
Indeed, the same can be said of the Incidentals album as a whole. There is very much a sense of an underlying “vocabulary” of thematic tropes, particularly in Berne’s own saxophone work, that endow the duration of the entire album (a little more than an hour) with a sense of unity. This is one of the attributes that leads the attentive listener to come down on the side of chamber music, rather than jazz. Nevertheless, the tropes themselves tend to be jazzy in origin, even if those origins are to be found in the more avant-garde practices of making jazz.
As a result, the best way to deal with the problem of classification is to ignore it. Even the more casual listeners should have no trouble simply sitting back and enjoying the ride. The scrupulous attention to clarity of execution that can be found in all of the group’s members makes it clear that the ensemble has no interest in the obscure or the arcane. Some of the sonorities use electronics to depart from the usual expectations for “straight-ahead” jazz; but none of them would be unfamiliar to anyone who has experienced an electric guitar being pushed to its limits (but not being destroyed as part of an on-stage rock performance).
For those hearing about Snakeoil for the first time, even though this is the latest of several albums, it still provides a good “first taste” of the group. Those planning to go to one of the performances on Saturday are likely to find the recording, taken as a whole, a useful approach to orientation. However, for those who prefer their listening to come from recordings, the album is also a good way to make the group’s acquaintance.