The Tim Berne & Steve Byram Book
Tim Berne and Steve Bryam — Spare (Screwgun*, 2015)
My first real foray into avant-garde jazz was Low Life by Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, and part of the adventure was the late-night atmosphere of the CD booklet’s artwork — not just the cover, but Steve Byram’s odd scribblings and abstract collages, and Robert Lewis’ obscure black-and-white portraits of the band.
Berne and Byram have collaborated for nearly 30 years now. They met during Berne’s brief tenure as a major-label recording artist, with Columbia, and have been inseparable since.
Now they’ve released a small coffee-table book together, an objet d’art, as NY Times critic Nate Chinen aptly calls it. True to its name, Spare comes in a brown cardboard sleeve, reminiscent of Berne’s first DIY CDs with his Screwgun Records label.
The illustrations inside the 100-page book live up to the name as well. Byram’s scribbles, hand-drawn or computer-generated, are etched onto blank backgrounds, or occasionally onto stark pages of color or texture. (I’m showing black-and-white pages here, but the book does have plenty of color.)
Berne’s photos — a surreal travelogue — favor dark shadows, and a common theme is rain or fog seen through windows of cars, trains, and planes. Many of them seem to be long-exposure pictures taken on a phone or a point-and-shoot camera, with the inevitable hand wiggles adding a touch of surreal narrative. If you’ve seen the covers to his albums Snakeoil and Shadow Man, you know what you’re getting into. He’s also taken several photos of bandmates, and one of a peeling-paint building that reminds me of the neighborhood near Les Instants Chavirés outside Paris.
The quietude of the photos is set against the sometimes jarring design of Byram’s drawings, which often feature humanoid figures built from crazy shapes, using impulsive scribbling to fill the spaces. Randomly, several of the drawings seem to be of wedding couples.
Here, I should make a horrible confession: I’ve never been that much into Byram’s art. I appreciate it — and as I said, it set the right mood for that first listen to Low Life. But I have to admit, a lot of his drawings have that look of five seconds and a cocktail napkin. I enjoy abstract art, but I’m not immune to that lingering doubt: Could my kids have done this?
And yet, I love having a book full of the stuff. Byram creates an unsettling little universe. Touches of humor and sarcasm are in there, and a sense of playfulness. It all seems to tap a common theme, something busy and baffling, with touchstones of familiarity underneath layers of a language I haven’t deciphered.
Actually, maybe that’s the point. I guess I like Byram’s work more than I knew.
The accompanying CD is a live recording of the Snakeoil quartet,
mixed mastered by David Torn. [Thanks to Berne himself for the correction.] “Spare Parts” and the suite “OC-DC,” from previous Snakeoil albums, get extended treatments here. The new piece “Lamé” gets explosive after a soothing, twisty composition led by sax and vibes. And the CD opens with “Deadbeat Beyoncé,” a new long-form piece that features a sweeping classical-piano display by Matt Mitchell. Elsewhere on that piece, Oscar Noriega takes a quieter, spare solo that sounds like a different kind of classical — a modern piece, with clean lines and unhurried demeanor.
The disc, which I think is titled Arguis Oleum, has that “live” fidelity but is a welcome addition, almost in the vein of the three-CD Unwound set from Bloodcount (which will always be a pinnacle of Berne’s catalogue). It’s a nice collector’s item.
(* This is the spot where I normally put the “record label” or book publisher. There kind of isn’t one here, this being a one-time project, but you can order the book through Screwgun.)