AMN Reviews: Tim Berne / Snakeoil – The Fantastic Mrs. 10 (2020; Intakt Records)

Leave it to saxophonist Tim Berne to tie your brain in knots. Here, he returns with his Snakeoil outfit, including Marc Ducret on guitar, Matt Mitchell on piano and modular synths, Oscar Noriega on clarinets, and Ches Smith on drums and percussion. As is the case for their previous five albums, The Fantastic Mrs. 10 is an exploration of Berne’s labyrinthine composition and improvisational processes.

The title track leads off with relentless structured soloing from Berne over a densely-composed and shifting set of rhythms from his bandmates. Mitchell is in his usual busy form, adding flourishes and contrapuntal lines. Ducret’s contributions are mostly impromptu abstractions on the electric, while Noriega’s approach is more along the lines of Mitchell’s – changing fluidly between the melodic and harmonic. This results in the group sounding as if they are simultaneously moving in five different directions and yet playing with a reasonable degree of consonance with one another.

Rolo manages to be both delicate and aggressive with a convoluted main theme and Berne soloing over variations thereof. Smith’s contributions include unconventional Latin-tinged percussion while Ducret and Noriega go outside over Mitchell’s cerebral chording and runs. The track as a whole exhibits a palpable tension across a variety of textures and patterns.

There is a lot to unpack on The Fantastic Mrs. 10, an hour-plus album that will stand up to many repeated listens. As for where this falls within the Snakeoil oeuvre, the aforementioned complexity and that of its predecessors make a ranking difficult. Suffice it to say that if you have enjoyed Berne and company in the past, you will like it here as well. And if you are seeking an introduction to the group, this album is as good as any. Thumbs way up.