28 June 2012
Jonathon Rosen and Stephen Byram
A recent UK tour by American saxophonist Tim Berne was notable for the inclusion of live visuals by two New York-based ‘practising synaesthesiologists’ and illustrators Jonathon Rosen and Stephen Byram. A gig at London’s Vortex (named after Wyndham Lewis’s pamphlets) on 27 March 2007, featured open improvisations by all the musicians in Berne’s two trios: Big Satan (Berne with Tom Rainey on drums and Marc Ducret on guitar) and Paraphrase (Berne and Rainey with Drew Gress on bass).
Rosen describes the visuals, mixed live and projected on two screens behind the players, as ‘disintegrations and contaminations’, an apt description of the unsettling imagery. Grainy black-and-white archive footage of a banana being dissected by floating hands is followed by a labelled clip of a fly, a praying mantis, a Masonic eyeball radiating beams of light. Scribbles appear and disappear over a still of a house. A film loop of a car moving through a tunnel is reminiscent of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. The musical – and visual – improvisations are hypnotic. As the music takes on a frantic, almost frenzied urgency, the visuals follow. The car breaks free, replaced by hands turning a valve wheel, a spider spinning a web at alarming speed. In one of the more sedate passages another movie reference appears, the Sea of Holes (from Yellow Submarine) makes an appearance, the Riley-esque circles panning sideways forever.
Byram and Rosen’s live visuals are a logical progression from their artwork for Berne’s Screwgun label. Despite the passion in the music, jazz recitals tend to lack theatricality – no climbing onto speaker stacks or swinging from lighting rigs. Using illustrative visuals to create an experience rather than just another gig (no matter how ‘avant-garde’ the material), was refreshing, leaving a buzzing excitement once the final wailing tones had died away. Which is what seeing a band perform should be all about. MB