Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: You’ve Been Watching Me


Stimulating, non-hierarchical group improvisation in music – that which is resistant to sloppiness, incoherency and ultimately, irrelevancy – comes to successful fruition only with the tremendous efforts of highly skilled, compatible and coordinated musicians responding relationally in the moment while intuitively keeping their collective mind focused, attuned and directed ahead. No small degree of study and learning is also necessary to maintain one’s individuality and best sidestep associated performance pitfalls, and for veteran NYC saxophonist Tim Berne, whose group projects past and present represent exciting, shining examples of such practices, it was the tutelage afforded the younger Tim Berne by Black Artists Group (BAG) and World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) founding member and crucial musical forebear Julius Hemphill, an exemplar of this exuberant method of playing, that, in addition to his perseverance, vision and talent, influenced Tim’s subsequent development in both his horn playing and compositional-improvisational methodologies.

You’ve Been Watching Me, a lithe, robust, wryly-titled heavyweight of an album, is the third recording to appear on producer Manfred Eicher’s Munich-based ECM label since 2012 from Snakeoil – Tim Berne (alto) Oscar Noriega (clarinet, bass clarinet), Matt Mitchell (piano, electronics), Ches Smith (drums, vibes, percussion, timpani) – now a newly-minted five-man outfit with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira. In its contrasting use of dense or spacious layered acoustic-electronic sound, bold color spectrum and stimulating group dynamic, the album represents a considerable developmental extension and welcome compliment to 2012’s eponymous group debut recording and 2013’s Shadow Man, both quartet affairs.

The witty, quizzical titling of many of Berne’s compositions, here and more generally, is the first thing to notice before the listening begins, their wordplay enhancing the listening experience well beyond a mere thrill ride.

‘Lost in Redding,’ beginning quick and off-kilter, eventually finds Berne sure-handedly leading the group out of their conundrum. The lengthy, questing ‘Small World in a Small Town’ leads into the dogged, punning insistence of ‘Embraceable Me.’ The sharp elbow blows delivered by ‘Angles’ are softened by the even-briefer title track’s solo acoustic guitar. The remoteness of ‘Semi-Self Detached’ leads into the spry, glib album closer, ‘False Impressions.’

Listeners who fully and sympathetically engage with this music – by turns boisterous, sweeping, moody, spacious, angular but generally free of jaggedness, edgy and tensile, passing fluidly between states of disquieting anticipation and turbulent arousal – will find this album captivating and emotionally persuasive. Indeed, You’ve Been Watching Me pulses with the kind of rare improvisational alchemy that transcends the verbal, instilling a sense of wonder that lingers long after musical conversation yields to silence.

Tim Berne's Snakeoil: "Scanners"