Hardcore Tim Berne fans may wonder about the compromises that were necessary for him to make in order to cut his first date for ECM as a leader. Label headman Manfred Eicher's hands-on aesthetic usually leads him to the producer's chair, and it did here. Berne's music, as evidenced by 40-plus albums, can go against giving up that kind of control. Snakeoil, however, represents a compromise; a true collaboration between them. Berne has appeared on ECM before; on Michael Formanek's The Rub and the Spare Change, and David Torn's Prezens. Snakeoil is not only his debut as a leader for the label, but the debut of his new quartet, with Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano, and drummer Ches Smith. Berne and Noriega have worked in Mitchell's band Central Chain in the past, while Smith has played with Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot, Mary Halvorson, and Fred Frith. There are six pieces on Snakeoil. Four are between 12 and 14 minutes, the other two are middle length, between seven and nine. They all reflect Berne's mature ambition as a composer. Mitchell and Smith are twin pillars in the ensemble, guiding dynamic, time, and shape. Berne's and Noriega's interplay is expansive harmonically and often serpentine, whether playing in concert or in counterpoint, and provides dimension and texture. Opener "Simple City" is an elliptical piece that explores an entire range of lyric ideas found in the first bluesy piano chords in the intro -- Berne doesn't enter until three minutes, Noriega until five-and-a-half, before things begin to shift and change shape without losing their center. There is a more immediate tension in the knotty lyricism of "Scanners," as Noriega and Berne follow Mitchell's high-register ostinati down a labyrinth. While both two tunes are at opposite sides of the track, they do underscore the notion that this is Berne's music at its most circular: it may not resolve in the place it began, but it does resolve. The sheer openness of frame in "Spare Parts" highlights not only intimate dialogue, but tonal possibilities as saxophones and clarinets shift roles inside the melodic pulse. The intricate twists and turns in "Not Sure" are countered by long spatial statements in the song's center. The conical shape of scales in the closer "Spectacle" is an adventure that examines melody as it moves from one small space to another, continually entwining and undoing itself, even as dynamics and tension highlight or abandon it over 12 minutes. Eicher's crystalline approach to sound captures each utterance with complete clarity, which is at once warm and full. Snakeoil is unlike any recording in Berne's large catalog. The lack of physical force (though there is plenty of fire) is more than compensated for, in the thought-provoking concept and complexity with a resonant yet unconventional lyricism.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek