Posts tagged ‘tim berne’

The Tim Berne & Steve Byram Book

Tim Berne and Steve BryamSpare (Screwgun*, 2015)

Tim Berne & Steve Byram -- Spare (2015)

Photo lifted from Screwgun Records.

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.

Steve Byram drawing, from the book

A plate from Spare.

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.)

October 10, 2015 at 1:14 pm Leave a comment

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil in Berkeley

Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne -- Tim Berne's Snakeoil at Berkeley Arts Festival, May 3, 2015

If you were to ask me what makes Tim Berne’s music so appealing, I’d probably point you to one of his fast themes. That stacatto zig-zag melody, set in a long and ambling thread, has become a signature sound of his, and it catches my ear in an almost rock-music way.

But I also appreciate Berne’s ability to build drama, in carefully developed, looming plotlines. I’ve been familiar with that aspect of his work for a long time — the song “2011” from …theoretically, his 1986 collaboration with Bill Frisell, comes to mind.

It struck me during Berne’s show last Sunday, at Berkeley Arts Festival, that his current Snakeoil band nicely highlights that sense of drama. It’s the chords. With Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith sometimes on vibes (when he’s not rustling or bashing at the drum kit), the compositions get a rich harmonic backdrop, something I’m noticing more now than with previous keyboard bands.

The drama came across as Snakeoil played a set of the longer pieces from the new album, You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015). One passage that particularly struck me had the piano churning out a slow cycle of quarter-note against Oscar Noriega‘s high-pitched blaring on clarinet, the insistent rhythm building tension until the band launched into a majestic composed theme. It’s that theatrical pacing that makes Berne’s longer compositions work.

Oscar Noriega and Ches SmithThe band we saw was the original Snakeoil quartet, without Ryan Ferreira, the guitarist who’s included on the new album. They looked a little tired, and rightfully so. The west-coast swing of their tour had just passed through Los Angeles, where they’d had a gig canceled — without being told until they got to Los Angeles. We tried to make up for it with a warm welcome — maybe 70 or more filling up the storefront gallery of Berkeley Arts.

Matt Mitchell

Matt Mitchell.

Oscar Noriega’s bass clarinet was often hard to hear over the drums, taking away some of the counterpoint that I enjoy in Berne’s writing. But we got to hear plenty of Noriega on plain clarinet, the higher notes sprinting or floating through the music. Some passages highlighting clarinet and vibes were particularly nice.

I think it was on “Embraceable Me” that Matt Mitchell showed off his talent at playing “split” piano, with his two hands doing almost unrelated things. That kind of musical puzzle was the foundation of his album, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013).

Another moment that stood out was the show’s opening — the song “Lost in Redding,” which immediately dived into the kind of fast, pecking melody that I was talking about at the beginning. From that point, we knew it was going to be a fun ride.

May 10, 2015 at 8:07 pm Leave a comment

Tim Berne, Still Selling Snakeoil

Photo: John Rogers, via ECM website.

Photo: John Rogers, via ECM website.

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil has released its third album on ECM and is backing it with a U.S. tour launching this week. There’s only one California stop, at the Berkeley Arts Festival (2133 University Ave, Berkeley) on Sunday, May 3.

It’s too bad Yoshi’s is no longer an option. The club’s plush environs suited the sophistication and silences of the originial Snakeoil, especially the glassy foundation laid down by Matt Mitchell’s piano. The live act is more jagged than the ECM-polished version on disc, but it still worked really well in that club. Alas, in the time since Berne played there in 2012, Yoshi’s has become more of a pop venue.

Berkeley Arts doesn’t have Yoshi’s acoustics, but it will provide a receptive crowd that won’t be talking over the music, and we’ll be physically closer to the band. For Berne, the economics might not be the same (actually, who knows; maybe they’re better) but it’s a good tradeoff for us in the audience.

Released on April 10, You’ve Been Watching Me [WARNING: link launches an audio file] adds guitarist Ryan Ferreira to the original quartet of Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano, and the versatile Ches Smith on drums and percussion. New York audiences got a taste of the new mix at Roulette and Barbès concerts in 2013. Video evidence was posted online — part 1 of the 5-part Barbès concert seems to have gone missing, but here’s part 2:

Ferreira also played quite a few of the shows at The Stone for Berne’s 60th birthday last year.

Cut-and-pasted directly from Berne’s web site (, here’s the Snakeoil itinerary:

April 21 : New York NY, Jazz standard
April 24 : Philadelphia PA, Barnes Museum
April 25 : Baltimore MD, an Die Musik
April 26 : Washington DC, Bohemian Caverns
April 28 : Buffalo NY, Hallwalls
April 29 : Toronto ON, Music Gallery
May 3 : Berkeley CA, Berkeley Arts Festival
May 4 : Seattle WA, Royal Room
May 5 : Portland OR, Jimmy Mak’s
May 6 : Sante Fe NM, GiG performance Space
May 7 : Albuquerque NM, The Outpost
May 8 : St. Louis MO, New Music Circle
May 9 : Chicago IL, Constellation
May 10 : Detroit MI, Trinosophes
May 11 : Minneapolis MN, Icehouse

April 19, 2015 at 4:35 pm Leave a comment

Tim Berne’s 60th

Somehow I missed that Tim Berne was doing a 60th-birthday series of shows at The Stone in October. Not that I could have gone, but it would have been cool to at least note it.

Luckily, there are several videos of the shows posted on YouTube by KjReilly. Seems Berne used the opportunity to play a bunch of new compositions, some of them quite long.

Like this one: “Embraceable Me,” running at more than 70 minutes. You get all the usual traps of a Tim Berne long suite, including a few spans where the band plays the heck out of a composed theme and brings it to an exciting crescendo. It feels like it goes on for one episode too many, but it’s still an enjoyable ride.

The band, Cornered, is an expanded version of Snakeoil, the band Berne used on two albums (so far) for ECM. Bassist Michael Formanek and guitarist Ryan Ferreira are the added pieces. Different permutations of these players also played as Acoustic Snakeoil (the original piano-drums-horns configuration), Electric Snakeoil (adding Ferreira, in a move reminiscent of Marc Ducret playing with Bloodcount), Decay, and Cornered.

December 5, 2014 at 8:39 pm 3 comments

Another Tim Berne Permutation

It’s called Sun of Goldfinger, and it’s actually David Torn‘s band, not Tim Berne‘s. They apparently played in Denver on Sept. 15.

It’s a trio of Torn, Berne, and drummer Ches Smith. That’s 50% of Torn’s band, Prezens, plus 50% of Berne’s band, Snakeoil.

As Torn explains in Westword Music, it’s like Prezens without the keyboard, with the guitar as the lone chordal instrument (to the extent that you can discern chords in the sound).

The result is a lot like Prezens. Torn blasts his new-age-gone-evil guitar sounds: aluminum soundwalls and squeals, sci-fi sonic blasts. Berne careens and screeches in a way that blends into the mix — although he does take a jazzy turn occasionally; see around the 15:00 mark in the video below, after which they even get into a near-Calypso groove. Smith’s drumming is the element that keeps the whole assembly tied to earth, grounding it in aggressive fills and improvising.

Not-quite-related: I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the massive Tim Berne Q&A published by The Village Voice. It’s part of a series of Q&As that’s been fantastic; I especially liked the Ches Smith edition.

h/t: @screwgunrecords.

September 16, 2012 at 12:01 pm Leave a comment

Tim Berne Yet Again

My wife gives me a hard time about this: In 1999, we traveled to Europe, and I got to see Tim Berne twice on the trip.

What’s important is that I didn’t create our itinerary. By pure coincidence, our three-week trip crossed Berne’s path two times. It helped that this was my wife’s first time in Europe, so we were sticking to the big cities — but that’s never been enough explanation for her. She still calls shenanigans on it.

She’s not a fan of avant-jazz but she knew Berne’s name well by then. She knew I couldn’t pass this up. She came with me to see the Bloodcount quartet in Munich, and a week or so later, I ventured out alone to see Berne play duo with guitarist Marc Ducret outside Paris, at Les Instants Chavirés.

This was part of an unusual streak. My first six Tim Berne shows were in six different cities, only one of them in the Bay Area. Even more random than the European trip was the time I had to travel to Denver — the only time I’ve ever been to the city, as opposed to the airport — and Tim Berne was doing a one-off gig in Colorado Springs, on a night when I could make the drive in my company-subsidized rental car. That’s the kind of luck I’ve had. Drives my wife nuts.

Snakeoil: Promo pic used for postcard fliers for the Yoshi’s show. Source: Yoshi’s site; click to go there.

“Luck” is the right word, because while my first Berne concert did happen to be in San Francisco, we don’t often get chances to see downtown NYC musicians. For obvious reasons. It’s one thing for them to hit Philly, New York, and Boston even for sparsely attended gigs. Flying to San Diego in hopes of playing to 20 people, then driving yourself eight hours to Oakland for the next night’s show — that’s a whole other proposition.

Still, it’s not impossible. Berne had already arranged some dates before signing his record deal with ECM for Snakeoil (reviewed here). So, he’d done the legwork, but having ECM’s backing certainly helped in terms of audience size, he says.

So it was that I got to see Berne and Snakeoil play Yoshi’s in Oakland last month. I keyed on in Oscar Noriega‘s clarinet more that I did on my first CD listens.This might have been at the sacrifice of Matt Mitchell‘s piano, which I tended to notice less. Ches Smith, who played in so many Bay Area ensembles before leaving for New York, got huge whoops and applause when he was introduced on stage, and he didn’t disappoint. I don’t think he brought the tympani that he uses on the CD, but he did have a wide array of tricks and traps, including a vibraphone.

I had a great time, of course. It feels like I just saw Berne at Yoshi’s, performing with Michael Formanek. That’s two shows in a span of less than a year, with a longshot possibility of catching the trio of Berne, Jim Black, and Nels Cline in May. Apparently, I’m on another hot streak. Don’t tell my wife.

Yoshi’s doesn’t allow videotaping, so I’m not aware of video of this show. Below are videos of a couple of other recent Snakeoil appearances. The first is of better sound and video quality, despite some moments of shaky camera work. [It’s now been taken down, possibly the result of one too many unauthorized tapings.] The second (“Scanners”) is shorter and more “home-video,” but you get to hear Berne make a crack about cracks about Oregon.

March 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm 1 comment


Tim Berne’s Snakeoil plays at Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Monday, Feb. 27, and at Yoshi’s Oakland on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Tim BerneSnakeoil (ECM, 2012)

It’s not as though being on the ECM record label was going to change Tim Berne’s music, but I had to wonder. ECM has a sound, a particular aura that’s built Manfred Eicher a worldwide fan base, even though ECM’s range is wider than some realize. (Would you have submitted Prezens to the label that did a CD of Bach viola da gamba songs?)

Even when Eicher doesn’t produce a recording — as on Michael Formanek’s The Rub and Spare Change (reviewed here), he takes control of the final mixing. You don’t escape the sound.

So, while a track like “Not Sure” kicks off with those driving, bouncing composed lines that Berne is famous for, you’ve also got “Simple City,” which opens the album with Matt Mitchell on careful piano, letting the notes absorb into the resonant air. It’s like slowly crackling ice, with tiny dissonances here and there for color. Ches Smith starts adding some percussion (timpani, whoa) and Berne finally enters on sax — and the feeling has changed from that icy ECM specialty to the warm-and-comforting (but somehow still icy) ECM specialty.

Tim Berne. Source: Kuumbwa Jazz; click to go there. Photo by Robert Lewis.

Eicher is particularly good at recording drums. I can really savor Smith’s work all over this album, especially the cymbals, whether it’s him splashing about or that clean tapping of wood-on-metal. The resonant room plays well with Oscar Noriega‘s clarinet, too, especially early in “Yield.” He’s going crazy while the band plays a gentle, pulsing rhythm, and the little resonances of the room crop up when Noriega takes a breath or delivers a long, keening note — nice studio-provided touches.

The composing is Berne all over; the first instants of “Scanners” will tell you that, with its quick-paced theme stacking interlocked parts on top of each other. Snakeoil is full of those rock-out moments juxtaposed with loose improvisation or slow, contemplative stretches. The ending of “Simple City” is slow and drawn-out, reminding me of the cooldown endings to some of Berne’s half-hour Bloodcount suites.

None of the tracks is blazingly fast, but “Scanners” moves at a good clip. We’ll call that the hit single (at 7:21, it’s also the shortest song). And “Spectacle” builds to a big, stormy finish. On the prettier side, “Spare Parts” includes a gentle stretch while Berne solos warmly over a calm piano-and-clarinet line. It’s Berne-like and ECM-like, and it’s got a cozy feeling that plays well with the album’s rainy-day cover.

“Scanners” and part of “Spectacle” can be heard via the Screwgun Records page, where you can also order Snakeoil. And if you’re wondering whatever happened to that Los Totopos album Berne recorded — this is it; they just changed the band name.

February 5, 2012 at 12:56 pm 3 comments

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