What’s in a name? For saxophonist/composer Tim Berne, christening a new band offers an opportunity for evocative wordplay, and for throwing a monkey wrench into the forbidding trappings that too often surround avant-garde inflected jazz.
Over the years, he’s led a series of exploratory ensembles, from his trio Hard Cell with keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey to the raucous septet Caos Totale, and the BBC Trio with drummer Jim Black and guitarist Nels Cline. Released last Tuesday, “Snakeoil,’’ Berne’s ECM debut album under his own name, introduces a new quartet with a lush, lapidary sound that’s anything but sideshow hokum.
“I didn’t choose ‘snake oil’ for self-deprecation, I just liked the sound of it,’’ says Berne, 57, who performs Thursday at Regattabar with the Snakeoil quartet, his first Boston gig as a leader in nearly a decade. “But making music is a strange thing to do for a living, and I like to play down the whole ‘art’ side of things. People promote this music in a way that discourages people from checking it out.’’
Berne has certainly played plenty of aggressive, bare-knuckle free jazz. Snakeoil explores very different sonic terrain. Featuring Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, pianist Matt Mitchell and Ches Smith on drums and percussion, the quartet has honed a slippery, transparent sound over two years and multiple European tours. Known for devising expansive, episodic works, Berne dials back the epic scale in Snakeoil, favoring a book of quietly dramatic, rigorously edited tunes.
“I’m always trying to play less,’’ says Berne, who eschews his brawny baritone sax in Snakeoil, instead favoring his liquid alto. “I wanted Ches to play multiple percussion to open up space, and Oscar’s clarinet has this lovely, light sound. There is still a lot of free-ish improvisation with a lot of implied harmonies and pulses. But if you mine the music with a certain amount of discipline, it sounds structured even though it’s not literally structured.’’
If Berne’s music is insistently idiosyncratic, it’s because his creative path is unlike any other musician on the scene. The Syracuse, N.Y.-native first picked up the horn at the relatively doddering age of 20. Rather than studying formally, he attached himself to established masters, most importantly through an intensive self-styled apprenticeship with the brilliant gutbucket avant-gardist Julius Hemphill, the late saxophonist/composer best known as the intellectual force behind the World Saxophone Quartet’s first incarnation.
The relationship gradually evolved into a close friendship, and Berne ended up helping Hemphill present and record his torrential flow of compositions. In 1979, Berne was ready to step out on his own, launching his label Empire Records and releasing his first album, “The Five Year Plan,’’ a session with Los Angeles innovators such as clarinetist John Carter, percussionist Alex Cline, and wind player Vinny Golia.
The gently self-mocking title turned into a prophecy, as the mid-’80s found Berne at the center of New York City’s downtown scene as a tireless collaborator and intrepid conceptualist always eager to work through processes for layering labyrinthine vamps and carefully deliberated coalescence. The late bloomer had found his calling.
“I was looking for something,’’ Berne says. “I didn’t want to have a job, be normal. To have someone like Julius interested in what I was doing was a big deal. I was composing early and he was a good role model in terms of creativity and life and music.’’
Berne has repaid the generosity he experienced by nurturing rising musicians, though even players with better name recognition seek out opportunities to collaborate with him. Drummer Dave King and pianist Ethan Iverson, two-thirds of The Bad Plus, have toured and recorded with Berne’s band Buffalo Collision in recent years.
For Snakeoil’s Noriega, last heard in Boston a couple years ago at Brookline High with the ferociously creative quartet Endangered Blood, Berne has provided entry to a musical universe where old rules don’t apply.
“At first it felt like a foreign language,’’ Noriega says. “The great thing about Tim is that he inspires you to come up with your way to interpret it correctly, to bring in your own voice.’’
In many ways, Noriega’s path is similarly idiosyncratic. The Tucson-raised saxophonist got his start playing ranchera music. He landed in Boston in 1989 intending to enroll at Berklee, but ended up lurking around campus, meeting and playing with various students and practicing in rehearsal rooms booked by his tuition-paying roommates.
“After a while people assumed I was a student,’’ Noriega recalls. “To this day when I run into old friends they say, you went to Berklee, didn’t you?’’
He made similar inroads at NEC, but subterfuge became unnecessary when venerable professor and saxophonist Joe Maneri recruited him to play duets in class. Traces of Maneri’s sinuous improvisational approach sometimes surface in Snakeoil as Noriega’s clarinet lines coil around Berne’s.
Snakeoil’s music benefits greatly from ECM’s pristine sound and the careful attention to dynamics paid by producer Manfred Eicher. For Berne, an artist with a doggedly DIY sensibility, working with ECM’s famously hands-on honcho wasn’t a problem.
“I’m kind of a retired control freak,’’ Berne says. “I’ve learned to enjoy other people’s ideas.’’