It was gnarled momentum that initially made me fall for Tim Berne’s music. Some of the cresting swells of early albums like 7X and Mutant Variations helped sell a compositional style that fully values kinetic crescendos. Because he’s a texture fiend, the saxophonist has historically left plenty of room for visceral sounds that up the ante as well. From Fractured Fairy Tales to Bloodcount, his bands have been expert at throwing punches while galloping by.
So I’m wondering why I’m so smitten with the utter grace of Berne’s latest outfit, Los Totopos. He hasn’t made any stylistic switch-ups for his first ECM disc, but the level of refinement that this new music boasts is unmistakable. Surrounded by Oscar Noriega’s clarinets, Ches Smith’s drums, and Matt Mitchell’s piano, the leader’s alto patterns have moved from tumbling to swooping. That momentum mentioned above is still there – parts of Snakeoil, like the drive towards oblivion at the end of “Scanners,” come on like a locomotive – but the group’s unity bevels the turbulence. I got to see the band during several formative gigs, and they were tight. But this disc captures an eloquence that wasn’t there prior.
One of the program’s strong points is the ensemble’s ability to be diffuse yet determined. From the opening speculation by Mitchell (whose ability to render frenzied passages with a gentle touch is crucial to this refinement thing I’m talking about) to the dreamy investigations the band renders on “Not Sure,” Los Totopos concoct the kind of formal informality that the Art Ensemble claimed as their own early on. The start of “Spare Parts” offers jitters inside a feathery reflection. The tune’s mid-section finds everything on constant simmer, waxing supple and prickly at the same time.
Noriega’s pulpy tone is a rich foil for Berne’s signature tartness. Smith’s deep palette of pummel options dodges cliché at every turn. Mitchell, who studied the bandleader’s music as a student, deploys the kind of whimsy that’s imbued with gravitas. Along with Manfred Eicher’s meticulous production, these singular skills help Berne reshape his sound. Together, they’ve found a way of presenting architectural idiosyncrasies as enchanting wrinkles.