Tim Berne was recently ranked in the Top 10 of Time Out New York’s “Essential NYC Jazz Icons”, an honour he will likely take with a pinch of salt, but also a reminder of the persistence of his endeavours: “Based on the recorded evidence, it may very well have been Tim Berne who was the definitive genius of NYC’s downtown 1980s jazz scene,” Time Out opined. “In the intervening years, he has remained committed to exploring the small group jazz idiom with a series of gritty, head-turning bands that have helped propel younger players such as Jim Black, Craig Taborn and Ches Smith into alt-jazz stardom”.
Since 1996, the primary outlet for Berne’s recordings has been his own label Screwgun, which has presented his bands, mostly in concert recordings. For the new quartet, he sought a larger platform. Accordingly, “Snakeoil” was recorded for ECM at Avatar Studios in New York in January 2011, with Manfred Eicher producing.
Berne met drummer Ches Smith through guitarist Mary Halvorson, all three part of NYC’s shifting pool of improvisers. “I liked Ches’s whole vibe, including the seriousness with which he approaches rehearsal, whether or not there’s a gig in sight. That was a big point for me. When I had these three players who were both original improvisers and great readers, it was really a motivation to write a lot of new material…” Smith extends his drum kit on “Snakeoil”, adding tympani, congas and gongs. His frame of reference is unique, his own background tracing an arc from early experiences in metal and punk bands, to jazz and free improvisation, contemporary composition and Haitian vodou drumming. His CV includes gigs with everyone from rock band Mr Bungle to Terry Riley, via Wadada Leo Smith, Iggy Pop, John Tchicai, Fred Frith, and Marc Robot’s Ceramic Dog. Smith’s own band These Arches currently includes Tim Berne, as well as Tony Malaby, Mary Halvorson and Andrea Parkins.
Matt Mitchell is a pianist and composer interested in the intersections of various strains of acoustic, electric, composed, and improvised new music. His sextet, Central Chain includes fellow Snakeoil members Tim Berne and Oscar Noriega, as well as Mary Halvorson, John Hebert, and Tomas Fujiwara. He also plays in trio with Berne and Ches Smith, and in duo with Smith. Other affiliations include groups with John Hollenbeck, Darius Jones, Rudresh Mahanthappa/Bunky Green and others. He is also active as an educator at the Brooklyn Center for Improvisational Music.
Oscar Noriega has previously worked with Lee Konitz, Anthony Braxton, Dewey Redman and Paul Motian, and been a member of the band Sideshow, who specialized in free approaches to the music of Charles Ives. Current activities include the ‘Mexico-inspired’ Banda De Los Muertos, which Noriega co-leads, and the group Endangered Blood with Chris Speed, Jim Black and Trevor Dunn. Since Fall 2010, he has curated The Palimpsestic Series, a weekly music event at Barbes, Brooklyn.