Shadow Man is Tim Berne's second Snakeoil project for ECM. The composer and bandleader co-produced this set in single takes with David Torn in a New York studio as a way of showcasing the crackling intensity of the group's live performances in balance with the various subtleties in scripted compositions that are sometimes lost in that situation. Berne on alto saxophone, Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Matt Mitchell on piano, and Ches Smith on assorted drums, gongs, and vibes deliver half a dozen tunes -- five originals (that range from middle length to exceptionally long) and a deeply moving reading of Paul Motian's "Psalm" -- with striking originality and a deepened focus on dialogue and exchange. Berne's writing is intensely detailed, and never more so than here. He writes motifs and frames that are designed to be lyrical yet open to dialogic improvisational opportunities. This often occurs in one-on-one conversations that are often contrapuntal in nature. In the kinetic "Static," the saxophonist and clarinetist go head to head before the former and Mitchell create a new conversation based on the one just held, all of it beholden to melody's context but not limited by it. Action and force introduce the suite-like "OC/DC," which gradually gains in intensity until Smith employs his vibes to underscore changes in shape and meter. Berne and Mitchell assert the off-kilter melody repetitively, before it all begins to break along various lines of conversation in various groupings. Eventually, Berne's intense solo takes hold, full of fiery emotion and winding notes to focus all of that ranging energy to a single point articulated in various voices. Mitchell's intro to the episodic "Socket" is percussive in its drive and articulation of the complex, rapid-fire lyric. Berne and Noriega join the motif before the former engages with the pianist. Smith's percussion solo creates an expanded "breath," a diversion spacious and insistent enough for Noriega to enter and not only claim the center but dictate the melody back to Berne; they eventually take it out together spherically. "Cornered (Duck)" closes playfully, with the immediacy of clarinet and alto saxophone traveling in locked synchronicity as Mitchell and Smith force them apart into open space. The front line engages contrapuntally before the rhythm section reenters, creating a new terrain for group improvisation. Mitchell's solo is colorful and motivic across the middle and lower registers. The band comes together again, recalling the melody but altered in cadence and context before Berne's solo answers the tune's harmonic questions. Shadow Man's experiment, in trying to capture Snakeoil's live performance in detail and dynamic, is not only successful, it reveals this band at a peak of instinctive, intuitive creativity and imagination.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek