AMN Reviews: Ryan Ferreira, Michael Formanek, Ches Smith, Tim Berne – Decay (2022; Screwgun Records)

One of the silver linings to the pandemic cloud of the last 2 1/2 years is that musicians have scoured their archives looking for older recordings of material to release. In the case of Tim Berne, his sock drawer must be filled with tapes and the like, as he has put out a minor treasure trove of live material from his various outfits.

Decay was recorded in 2015, featuring Ryan Ferreira on guitar, Michael Formanek on bass, Ches Smith on drums, and Berne on alto sax. This lineup is three-quarters of Berne’s Snakeoil group at that time (as far as I know, Formanek did not record with Snakeoil). Thus, Snakeoil is as good a reference point for Decay as any of Berne’s recent efforts.

Indeed, Berne wastes no time, kicking things off with a discordant solo before breaking into the group’s modus operandi – that being a hybrid approach toward improvisation. On one hand, Berne and team set forth long themes with distinct patterns that vary throughout. On the other, the improv is almost free, with rough-edged chords from Ferreira as well as staggered rhythms. The group plays at various points along this spectrum. Formanek and Smith busily accompany a Berne solo on Imperfect, while there is angular yet introspective solo improv from Ferreira in the middle of How Hip is the Ocean that morphs into extended guitar techniques and busy rattling from Smith. At various points, it seems as if Berne has written out notes to guide his own playing and the three others do as they see fit within this framework.

Even though this recording is essentially the quality of a soundboard bootleg, it is quite listenable and a must for anyone who enjoys the unique musical system that Berne has employed over the last 15 or so years – most notably Snakeoil. Decay captures a moment in time for one of his many interconnected ensembles, and we are lucky to have it documented.

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