Saturday, December 4, 2010

A New Vision Of Chicago: Josh Berman

Josh Berman (cornet; b. 1972)
Old Idea (Delmark Records)

Keefe Jackson (sax)
Jason Adasiewicz (vibes)
Anton Hatwich (bass)
Nori Tanaka (drums)

(photo: Jim Newberry)

Surprisingly, this is cornetist Josh Berman's debut album. But Old Idea (Delmark) shows a lot of strength from an artist who really is a veteran player on the Chicago scene. Josh Berman's resume is deep; with solid Chicago credentials that include Lucky 7s, Umbrella Music collective, Luzern Exchange, Exploding Star Orchestra, Fast Citizens and Rolldown (led by Jason Adasiewicz). So he has been around the block and in the circuit long enough. A first album really shouldn't be a surprise. Neither should it surprise anyone how fantastic Old Idea truly sounds.

On first spin Old Idea could sound like many of the other free jazz brass ensembles that have come out of Chicago in the last decade. Many emulating the power and creativity of the revered Ken Vandermark/Vandermark 5. But after closer inspection you realize that all of them stand apart quite nicely. And this quintet stand up forcefully well, all led on strength and direction of Berman.

Fueled by multiple inspirations ranging from the fellow Chicago native, Brad Goode, the late Bill Dixon, Miles Davis and Dave Douglas, Berman has created his own lyrical style which is both inventive as it is sensitive. His band has played together in various forms in the aforementioned bands since around 2001.

The beauty interplay throughout this group is phenomenal. On the opener "On Account Of A Hat" you can hear the mixture of improvisation, creativity and sensuality in the playing as each member slowly comes into the performance. Starting with Jackson and Berman on horns, Adasiewicz with Hatwich gently nimbling his way and resulting in Tanaka on drums mixing it up with Adasiewicz until Jackson and Berman come counterpointing back.

What sets Berman's Old Idea apart is the free sparse arrangements he written for this group. While it is definitely based in the Chicago Free Jazz tradition, it definitely utilizes the aspects of space and breath for the listener to jump in and absorb. On "Let's Pretend", one of my favourite new Chicago performers Keefe Jackson, delivers some near perfect phrasing that is muscular but delicate. Delivered in a Rollins-like model, Jackson moves the material along as Adasiewicz adds the spacey earth-tone elements to proceeding. As the piece strays into "Out There" territory, Berman turns in a veracious yet cerebral performance that sort of tells you all you need to know---this cat is bold, serious and highly engaging.

The ballad "Almost Late" is a lovely piece led by Adasiewicz's moody Dave Pike meets Bobby Hutcherson momentum with swathes of rhythmic beauty from both Tanaka and Hatwich with Berman and Jackson combining to add some lush overtones. "Almost Late" is a exquisite piece of writing that had me coming back to this track over and over.

There are three short pieces entitled "New Year (A, B and C)" spread across the session that demonstrate the duo and collabrative efforts of the members within Berman's material. While the three pieces are different, they definitely show top-notch musicianship of the players. Particularly New Year C in which the full band add elements of space, colour and subtle improvisation that make it an absolutely beautiful way to close out a great recording.

Overall, Old Idea is an album highlighted by veteran performers with a leader in Josh Berman who's absorbed a lot over the last decade and it's finally made its way into the studio. This is an awesome debut if you want to call it that. Chicago has a rich tradition of Free Jazz artists. It's sometimes very hard to know where to start; I think Josh Berman is a great, creative and accessible way to dig your ears in for a taste of an artist with true vision for the future. I hope that he continues to strike out on his own in addition to the performances with his collective in Chicago.

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