Since emerging as a solo artist in the late '70s, alto saxophonist and composer Tim Berne has released numerous albums and played in a variety of bands. 2012’s Snakeoil is the debut of a new quartet: Berne, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, and drummer Ches Smith. The group plays originals that combine improvised and scored material. “Simple City” opens with a quiet statement by Mitchell that could be improvised or notated, and it’s hard to classify—is this classical or jazz or something else? Then Smith enters with an assortment of percussive colors and Berne picks up on piano phrases and runs with them. The piece compels on a moment-to-moment basis, and overall there's a fine sense of texture. The first section of “Scanners" displays an acerbic modernist perkiness; later, a solo clarinet passage intrigues before the band returns. (The contrast of Berne’s alto sax and Noriega’s clarinet is among the album’s key pleasures.) A particularly striking section of “Spare Parts” rains piano tones and percussion hits as the horns riff and play. Snakeoil’s alluring complexity invites multiple listens.


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