Tim Berne, Downtown Sax Man, Makes Avant-Garde Jazz Pay

Art, even avant-garde art, has its material consolations. Take, for instance, a visit with alto and baritone saxophonist Tim Berne, who for the past decade has been one of the mainstays of the Knitting Factory-centric music scene downtown. (He and his trio Paraphrase play the Knitting Factory’s Old Office room April 8 to April 12.) Mr. Berne is opening the mail, a homely chore that has now become maybe the most important part of his day. He tears open a letter from Japan and a fresh $50 bill falls out-payment in full for two T-shirts and one CD on his year-old independent label, Screwgun, which so far is mostly devoted to the rapidly accumulating body of work of Tim Berne and Paraphrase ( Visitation Rites ), as well as his quartet Bloodcount ( Unwound , Discretion and Saturation Point ). “Lately, I’ve been doing a couple of hundred bucks a week in the mail, which is good,” he said.

Anyone can sell most anything through the mail. Mr. Berne has managed the neater trick of selling Screwgun records to distributors who are getting the product in the stores. At this moment, he’s waiting for a Fed Ex shipment of Screwgun’s first non-Berne CD, Un Certain Malaise , a wild and impressive solo effort by the French electric guitarist Marc Ducret, which the distributors have already spoken for. “Everyone asks me, ‘Who the fuck is Marc Ducret?” Mr. Berne said. “Well, as of today, I’ve already made my money back.”

Sitting in the kitchen of Mr. Berne’s Park Slope brownstone, I wonder whether I’ve wandered into the first act of Death of an Improvising Salesman and then give myself up to the saxophonist’s tale of how he got fed up and decided to go it alone. But first, as they say in Hollywood, a little backstory.

Mr. Berne is a lanky, affable, intermittently pissed-off 43-year-old guy who first picked up the alto in college, on hiatus from his then primary pursuit, intramural basketball. He just liked the way the damn thing sounded and he kept blowing, all the way to New York. There, he sought out Julius Hemphill, the compositional force behind the World Saxophone Quartet, whose early albums, like Dogan A.D. and ‘Coon Bid’ness (both currently out of print) had persuaded Mr. Berne that jazz music could groove like pop and wail like the blues without regard for traditional categories and pieties. Mr. Berne apprenticed himself to Mr. Hemphill, sold records at Tower to make ends meet (there’s a movie in this somewhere) and was generally confirmed in his constitutional inclination to pursue his own muse and not give a rat’s ass about sideman’s dues or bebop chops or what anyone else thought.

Mr. Berne eventually found a home with an independent label, JMT, run by a charismatic young German impresario named Stefan Winter. Over the course of seven years, he made nine albums that helped establish what critics (but rarely musicians) call a Downtown jazz esthetic-postmodern, pixilated, you can pick your own adjective. All the albums have sublime moments, and they all have moments where I can’t figure out what Mr. Berne is doing besides amusing himself with noise texture and collages of special effects. It’s a package deal, and among the more notable packages were 1989’s Tim Berne’s Fractured Fairy Tales and Diminutive Mysteries (Mostly Hemphill) , the latter an homage recorded under the watchful eye of the master Hemphill in 1992, three years before his death.

Mr. Berne seems to have thought he would happily record for JMT forever, but three years ago, Mr. Winter sold the catalogue to a major label and started a new one, leaving Mr. Berne with no control over whether his JMT albums would ever again see the light of day. (About half the output now seems to be out of print.) You might as well have shot his family. When Mr. Berne went to shop his next recording project at another indie label, he discovered that the owner had his own auteurish notions about content and personnel, a not uncommon situation in the big-ego, little-label jazz world. “And this guy isn’t selling a thousand records of anything,” Mr. Berne said. “I called him and told him, ‘Why don’t you write the music and do your own fucking record.'”

These are the words of a man who will shortly be in business for himself. The key to the business, Mr. Berne discovered, is that CDs cost about 75 cents apiece to produce. With a little grass-roots marketing and promotion, you can sell enough to make some money. “I’ve sold 2,500 copies of Unwound in the first year,” he said. “How am I able to do as well as the labels with half as much distribution, nobody working for me, no money? The whole thing is predicated on artists not knowing how to do it and not knowing the details.”

Of course, most jazz artists, like most people, don’t want to know the details. Details are boring. But Mr. Berne’s obsession with product and process has its own kind of artistic purity, one that finds a perfect expression in the Screwgun CDs that he concocts with the graphic artist Steve Byram. At two paces, the covers are virtually indistinguishable-black scribblings on chocolate-brown cardboard. On closer inspection, the CDs reveal a smart-ass wit, be it visual (note the woman being swatted on the fanny by a mechanical hand on the Ducret album) or typographical. The duo take delight in the low-budget approach to live-concert recordings (“8 Million Bit Supermapping Using State of the Art ASS Technology”) and the just plain absurd (“Please don’t talk during the bass solo”).

Did I forget the music? Mr. Berne says his overriding idea was to create “authorized bootlegs, fan-friendly raw shit for the real hard-core.” Consequently, you don’t listen to a Screwgun album so much as submit to it. Once I had entered into the Screwgun mind, I was temporarily ruined for anything else, especially Mr. Berne’s own JMT albums, which now sounded arty and self-conscious by comparison. While most ambitious Downtown musicians make heavy use of composed material, thus setting themselves apart from the boppers improvising on chord changes, Mr. Berne has recently been moving in the opposite direction, toward looser improvisation.

“I am more surprised by my band than I used to be,” he said. “I have less control over it, which is intentional.” His Bloodcount quartet at least makes use of rough “head” arrangements that feature some lovely unison and counterpoint work with tenor saxophonist-clarinetist Chris Speed, and some not completely unconventional virtuosity on the part of bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Jim Black. The trio Paraphrase, with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey, is pure, back-to-the-70’s free improv.

So, if you want to get screwed, contact Screwgun at 104 St. Mark’s Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217. It’s not just a label, it’s a call to arms. “When people buy a Screwgun album, they feel like they’re helping the cause,” Mr. Berne said. “Whereas when you go to the store and buy a record on Verve, you’re just another pinhead.”

Tim Berne, Downtown Sax Man, Makes Avant-Garde Jazz Pay