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AS A teenager, free-improvising US saxophonist Tim Berne was keenest on Soul music but after he began to learn saxophone, inspired by the masters like Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Anthony Braxton and Julius Hemphill, he turned towards jazz and free improvising.
This ardour for free music became even more passionate when he moved to New York City —“there was tons of live music there” — and he sought out Hemphill who gave him saxophone lessons and career advice. He began his own label, Empire, and cut his first album, The Five Year Plan, in 1979.
The instrumentation of his Snakeoil Quartet, with Matt Mitchell on piano, drummer Ches Smith and Oscar Noriega playing Bb and bass clarinets is somewhat unusual in not including a bass. It’s not something he misses: “I like the combination of clarinet and piano.”
The quartet, recorded live at two New York venues, are featured on the double album The Deceptive Four Live. It’s a sizzling record, full of fire, life and verve and Berne loves playing with them: “They are full of creativity, independence and a sense of humour.”
The track Perception has a magical percussive opening by Smith, followed by earnest conversational interplay between Mitchell’s serpentine piano and Noriega’s birdlike clarinet before Berne’s alto flows with riverine notes and Smith’s pounding drums rise up. It is the sound of an extraordinary quartet creating the impression of a much larger band.
Berne’s favourite track is Hemphill, the album’s 21-minute finale, a remembrance of his mentor and by the impassioned way Snakeoil play it, a tribute too.
Berne’s rhapsodic opening flourishes radiate deep human feeling grounded by Mitchell’s hard-struck piano and Noriega’s clarinet flies above them, calling them with his aerial notes. There is a profound sense of unity in Snakeoil’s sound, with ensemble passages and other long moments where one member leads and provokes his confreres into fresh sonic reaches and concord, then falls back and another bandmate sparks other new directions.
Moornoats begins fast, an amalgam of torrid sounds, with Smith’s drums artistry in prime fettle. There is a beautifully lyrical bass clarinet passage by Noriega, while Mitchell earths his piano chimes stridently beneath his notes.
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