AMN Reviews: Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Incidentals (2017; ECM Records)

There is a certain structure to Tim Berne‘s compositions on Incidentals. On one hand, they seem rigid and strict, but at the same time leave ample space for Berne and his group (Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Ryan Ferreira on electric guitar, Matt Mitchell on piano, and Ches Smith on drums and percussion) to collectively improvise. Perhaps this is especially due to Mitchell’s penchant to add complex and varied piano lines to Berne’s outlines (or perhaps these lines are part of the outlines – it is hard to tell). To get an idea of what this might sound like, one can look no farther than Mitchell’s own A Pouting Grimace or his contributions to Dan Weiss’s Fourteen and Sixteen.

That is not to downplay the significant contributions of Noriega, Ferreira, and Smith, who wend their way through the album’s five pieces with grace and authority. With a few modest exceptions, there is little emphasis on long solos. The centerpiece of Incidentals is Sideshow, a 26-minute track that begins with Mitchell setting forth a labyrinthine piano theme. He is quickly joined by the rest of the group and the theme becomes more complex and contrapuntal. This densely-composed set of interweaved riffs features Ferreira’s aggressive guitar-work and Smith’s non-stop, arrhythmic drumming, along with Noriega providing drones and accentuations. Around the five minute mark, the group goes downtempo with a quiet, improvised interlude. Slowly, structure reemerges with Berne, Noriega, and Ferreira teaming up for a complex, medium-paced, lead motif. Afterward, the group engages in freely-played atmospherics. This leads to an angular Ferreira solo over another complex line from Mitchell, until the rest of the group join in once more with a reprise variation of the opening theme. Subsequently, Mitchell and Smith provide an unconventional duet of avant piano stylings and non-western drumming which is followed by a structured set of wailings from the remaining players to end the piece.

It is rare to hear music this exquisitely crafted. Like much of the best modern avant-jazz, it is difficult to determine where the composition ends and the improvisation begins. But with an album this compelling, such a distinction is not important. While you can grab just about anything that Berne has released over the last 40 years and expect an enjoyable listen, Incidentals is evidence that he can still achieve rare form.