BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Alto saxophonist Tim Berne has sometimes been labeled a visionary, and given his extraordinary ability to keep one foot in free jazz and the other in more conventional postbop forms it’s no wonder. You’ve Been Watching Me, his third record with his Snakeoil ensemble and 49th as a leader (and we’re not counting his sideperson and collaborative projects), ranges all over the map, from contemplative balladry to frenetic energy to batshit insanity – sometimes within the same track.
At eighteen and a half minutes, “Small World in a Small Town” encompasses it all, flowing through crazy soloing and luscious ensemble playing, alternating the melody between sour and sweet, and not always when you might think. Berne and clarinetest Oscar Noriega (who also doubles on bass) lead the charge, as guitarist Ryan Ferreria and pianist/electronicist Matt Mitchell fill out the narrative and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith keeps the rhythm busy. It’s a mini-masterpiece of both composition and collective improvisation, and it must have been as much fun to record as it is to hear.
“Small World in a Small Town” pretty much defines what this disk is all about, but fortunately there are a half-dozen other tracks to experience. “Embraceable Me” (yes, Berne, we see what you did there) moves playful cacophony to the lush balladry to which the title alludes to a sort of swinging dirge. “Semi-Self Detached” starts with the ballad form and evolves into clarinet drone, drum kit clash and saxophone skronk. “False Impressions” lets Mitchell wander, setting the scene for exploratory woodwind lines, a ringing vibraphone and a nearly sedate atmosphere. The title track surprisingly strips it all down to just Ferreria and his acoustic guitar.
Beautifully produced by David Torn, who knows a thing or two about extremes, You’ve Been Watching Me integrates Berne’s many facets into one glittering diamond of a jazz record.
DOWNLOAD: “Embraceable Me,” “Small World in a Small Town,” “Semi-Self Detached”