A few months ago, I had the pleasure of writing about The Veil, a recording with altoist Tim Berne, guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Jim Black. While the twists and turns on Snake Oil are comparable, many elements of this latest release make it an apples to oranges endeavor. Whereas 'The Veil' was a scathing free improvisation of unabashed noise and gritty power, 'Snake Oil' embraces a more compositional and melodic approach.
The instrumentation on 'Snake Oil' is a bit more introspective, yet can coalesce with some power. With Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano, Ches Smith on percussion, Berne has a nice palette of timbers and tonalities with which to work. The melodic passages showcase his complex compositions and an affinity for mixing these qualities. Right from the first tune there is an assuredness in the intertwining melodies and ever evolving musical ideas. Quiet passages are contrasted by intense ones, and the ebb and flow throughout is seamless. Patterns and melodic memes often begin as small tributaries and flow into powerful rivers of sound.
The press material captures what I think is an important aspect of the recording:
It’s an arresting collective sound, from a disciplined crew: two years of workshopping and woodshedding preceded the recording to reach what Berne calls “the necessary ‘looseness’ essential for a group identity”, and to realize “the dynamics that would enable the sonic details of this chamber-like band to emerge clearly.”
When listening, it can be difficult to parse is what is composed and what spontaneously emerged, but in the end it all seems to composed - or actually - it doesn't. A spirit of freeness permeates the recording.