Tim Berne's Snakeoil
Salle Gésu
Montreal Jazz Festival
Friday, July 5, 2013 – 10:30 p.m.

Sometimes, listening to free jazz, I start imagining it as the soundtrack to a film or a book. The quieter duets could be the conversational interludes; the more cacophonous, abstract sections would fit chase scenes. As music that's not bound to a melody nor to a prearranged form, free jazz allows the listeners to recognize their own patterns inside what the musicians are playing.

For Tim Berne's quartet performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival on Friday, I kept thinking of thrillers by American noir writer Cornell Woolrich: the music and Woolrich's thrillers shared the same features of dark, ominous sections, and heart-grabbing unexpectedness – but also beauty of language, whether written or musical.

And there was a lot of beauty there, nestled among some atonality, complicated rhythms, and unearthly harmonies.

This was Berne's first appearance at the Montreal Jazz Festival as a leader, and he brought the same three musicians who also appeared on his 2012 ECM album, Snakeoil: Oscar Noriega (clarinet), Matt Mitchell (piano) and Ches Smith (drums, percussion, and vibraphone). All three of them are active in the NYC/eastern U.S. jazz and improvised music scene, and they've played together in different other arrangements as well.

However, Berne announced at the beginning of the show that this concert wouldn't include anything from Snakeoil: instead, it would consist of numbers from his next two albums, one of which hasn't yet been recorded. The other will be released in October. Berne also didn't announced all the song titles, saying that many of these songs still had “20 titles”.

For most of the concert, Noriega played bass clarinet, using its full range from high-pitched squeals to bass grumbles, but most often playing it in unison with or complementing Berne's alto sax. Both frequently used circular breathing to create long sinuous lines of sound, sometimes a bit off-kilter – verging on melody but staying resolutely just a centimeter away.

Mitchell's piano added equally important rhythm and harmony to the mix, for example in a fast, rumbling duet with Noriega in the opening piece. Smith switched between drums and other percussion, and vibraphone, using the light, quick sound of the latter to particular effect to accent and contrast with the deeper sound of the horns. He frequently alternated between sticks and hand drumming, using the more muted sound of hands on skins to fill in spaces.

For the second piece, Noriega opened on clarinet in unison with Berne on alto, playing a haunting melody. Their lines were underscored by very light riffs from Mitchell on piano and Smith on vibraphone; partway through, the vibraphone bubbled up more loudly and became more random in its patterns.

They ended with “Cornered (Duck)”, which Berne promised would be on the next album. It was a multi-layered piece in which the bass clarinet and alto complemented each other, with hard, abrupt drumming behind, and bright, fast piano interludes. The music morphed from whispery to growls to stately to a demented marching band (reminding me of the late Dutch jazz master Willem Breuker), and finally ended abruptly.

The room was only about half-full, but the audience was enthusiastic, and gave the group a standing ovation. For an encore, they returned to play “Psalm” by Paul Motian – which Berne said would not be on an album. It was a hymn-like piece, where each instrument – piano, drums, alto sax, clarinet – contributed to the soulful and beautiful sound, ending finally with a few slow piano notes.

In March, Berne and Mitchell had played the same piece in a star-filled tribute to the late drummer and composer in NYC. It was well worth repeating with this quartet: a really lovely and heartfelt rendition to end a thought-provoking and fascinating concert.

    – Alayne McGregor

See also: