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Pianist Matt Mitchell Goes Deep Into the Musical Psyche of Tim Berne on 'førage'

Matt Mitchell has a rare depth of insight on the music of saxophonist Tim Berne — not only as the pianist in Snakeoil, one of the most accomplished bands of Berne’s career, but also as an aficionado, and maybe even an obsessive. All of which is glowingly apparent on førage, a deep-focus, often astonishing album that features Mitchell’s solo piano readings of Berne’s compositions.

“It really is about those two guys, and the intensity of intention and execution from both of them,” said David Torn, who produced and mixed the album, working with the recording engineer Daniel Goodwin.  

Mitchell is a pianist of audacious instinct and ravishing technical aplomb, and he has recently ascended to the top tier of jazz accompanists. There’s a decent chance you have heard him with trumpeter Dave Douglas, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, or drummers John Hollenbeck and Dan Weiss. He has also released two impressive albums on Pi Recordings: Vista Accumulation, a quartet effort on two discs, and Fiction, a collection of fearsome études unpacked in duologue with drummer Ches Smith. 

But Mitchell has demonstrated a special musical symbiosis with Berne, notably over the last five or six years. Snakeoil, which released its self-titled studio debut on ECM in 2012, was built around their elastic rapport together, and with Smith and clarinetist Oscar Noriega. (“I’m looking for weirdos,” Berne said of his selection process at the time, in a profile that ran in JazzTimes.)

Snakeoil has since released two more excellent albums on ECM, Shadow Man (2013) and You’ve Been Watching Me (2015), as well as Anguis Oleum — an official bootleg included with SPARE (2015), the art book that Berne made with the illustrator and designer Steve Byram, issued on his small-batch Screwgun label.

A brand-new Snakeoil album, Incidentals, is due out on ECM in August; as on You’ve Been Watching Me, it will feature a five-piece iteration of the group, with Ryan Ferreira on acoustic and electric guitars.

Credit Nuno Martins

Because Mitchell brings such an orchestral understanding to Berne’s music, førage conveys some of the same harmonic and contrapuntal energies you’d associate with Snakeoil. (There are also interpolations of pieces from the Snakeoil repertoire, like “OC/DC” and “Spare Parts.”)

When I spoke with Berne and Mitchell over Skype earlier this month, they described førage as both a logical extension and a process of discovery. “Some of the pieces are pretty straightforward, in terms of how I move through the form,” Mitchell said. In some cases, the improvisation emerged as a bridge between two different themes. 

Mitchell has done this sort of thing before: In 2009, he performed a solo set of Berne’s music at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, as the opening act for a midsize Berne ensemble. That program, presented by Ars Nova Workshop, was a breakout moment for Mitchell, who transposed Berne’s compositional language to the piano with a kind of superhuman composure.

“It was totally amazing,” recalled Berne, a corroborating witness. “He captured the music in this new way, but it was also so accurate in every detail.” Mitchell had in fact spent months — the better part of a year — studying Berne’s intricate scores, and adapting them to the piano.

A few of the pieces he played in Philadelphia resurface on førage. “In certain ways I was more prepared then, because I studied those pieces intensely,” Mitchell said. “But now I’ve had the experience of really digging in with this music, so it’s all much more intuitive.”

Torn, who plays with Berne and Smith in a trio called Sun of Goldfinger, and has produced most of Berne’s albums over the last 20 years, was struck by the virtuosity that Mitchell brought to the table. “Matt really is poly-tasking,” he said, “but there’s nothing abnormal about it for him. It is an organic process, based on the fact that he developed these techniques of being able to mix very different time signatures together at the same time. And he basically treats harmony in the same way. It’s open-field but not just ‘free.’ There’s a compositional direction to his readings, with these number of voices that he can pursue at the same time.”

Another facet of the music that emerges vividly on the album is the use of overtone — what Torn describes as “oceans of harmonics,” and made a special effort to capture on the recording. You hear it especially on a balladic track like “ÀÄŠ” — or “SÎÏÑ,” which closes the album on a reflective note. 

The exquisite tonal color on the album emphasizes the lyrical side of Berne’s music, which is more often hailed for its restive or combative elements. “When I studied with Julius Hemphill in the ‘70s,” Berne said, “the first thing he had me work on was the overtone series. That’s been in my head almost from the beginning. But you hear it in a different way on the piano, maybe more clearly.” 

In the physical version of førage, Mitchell’s name appears first, followed by Berne’s (in parentheses). It’s not too far a stretch to picture the names reversed, which says a lot about the collaborative energies on the album. “I didn’t want it to be ‘Matt Mitchell Plays Tim Berne,’ which sounds so cheesy,” said Berne, adding that he sees himself as a composer in the functional sense, someone who creates platforms for elaboration.

Mitchell will perform this music on Tuesday night at Roulette in Brooklyn, both in a solo format and with Berne. They will revisit the concept on June 29, as part of the Sound It Out series at Greenwich House Music School. And Snakeoil is scheduled to perform at the 2017 Newport Jazz Festival, on August 6.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.