This is my pick for best jazz recording of the year. I think it got a little overlooked because it isn’t news anymore that Snakeoil makes great music, but the way their sound has advanced in recent years is astonishing.
Saxophonist and composer Tim Berne and his group Snakeoil make compelling, complex music, but his career arc is simple. He’s an outsider’s outsider who has found success and recognition after many hardscrabble years.
Mr. Berne, who is 62 years old, has twice started imprints—Empire in the ’70s and Screwgun in the ’90s—to record his music, and he has worked in record stores to make ends meet. He has doted on figures like saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill, whose rare ability to fuse gutbucket blues and avant-garde jazz is often overlooked. There are no “Berne Plays Thelonious Monk ” recordings that might endear him to the jazz mainstream. Yet for the past five years Mr. Berne has recorded for ECM Records, a prominent label, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Since joining the ECM roster, he has released four excellent recordings with Snakeoil—the latest, “Incidentals,” ranking as one of the finest jazz albums in an exceptional year.
Snakeoil features a core of Mr. Berne, pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega and drummer Ches Smith ; on occasion the group has expanded to include guitarist Ryan Ferreira. Mr. Ferreira doesn’t take unaccompanied solos on the recording; instead he adds texture, as does guitarist David Torn, who also produced “Incidentals.”
Mr. Berne’s compositions challenge the theme-solo-theme structure of most jazz. Rather than return to a theme, each solo tends to take the music to a new juncture; the shifting rhythms in the play of Mr. Mitchell or Mr. Smith function as a guide to the direction of each piece. Mr. Berne is interested in collective improvisation, and the members of Snakeoil have developed a phenomenal rapport that enables each member to be heard clearly even during those moments.
Mr. Berne’s composing mettle is particularly evident on “Hora Feliz,” the 10-minute track that leads this 64-minute program. The piece starts softly with horn murmurs over firmly struck single piano notes amid atmospheric sounds from the guitar. It drifts into subtler and subtler combinations before shifting, four minutes in, to a muscular ensemble piece that is very nearly toe-tappable. It’s as if the drink of choice at happy hour shifted from Chardonnay to bourbon. Much like Hemphill’s or Arthur Blythe’s , Mr. Berne’s saxophone sound is dark, and his angular play is a good contrast with Mr. Noriega’s smooth, lean lines. The centerpiece of “Stingray Shuffle” is a collective improvisation focused on texture whose layers of sound are the sonic equivalent of a napoleon. “Sideshow” is longest piece on the recording and it features catchy themes and superb solos from Mr. Noriega, Mr. Torn and Mr. Smith; ardent fans of Snakeoil may recognize it as the second half of “Small World in a Small Town,” which appeared on the band’s 2015 release, “You’ve Been Watching Me.”
The results are entrancing. Few groups are as adept at drawing listeners in and enticing them to follow discrete musical statements that morph into bigger group declarations.
With his run of Snakeoil recordings, Mr. Berne has joined the ranks of elder statesmen from the Lower East Side scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Musicians like Bill Frisell, Steve Coleman and John Zorn were seen as stylistic rebels then, but their music has become a part of the jazz establishment. Younger musicians like Mr. Mitchell, Kris Davis, Jonathan Finlayson, Tomas Fujiwara, Steve Lehman, Dan Weiss and many others are eagerly following in their footsteps.
—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.