Readers tend to write in and needle your auditor here with complaints about how I like to harp on record labels and how I insist that there's a unified identity or given set of parameters loosely collaring the CDs many of them release. Well, I don't know: if back in the day you picked up something on Motown (unless it was PFM's COOK), wouldn't it usually be high-quality, high-gloss soul/R&B? Didn't that Brit label Harvest Records back in the '60s and '70s generally put out weird rock? As for Matt Balitsaris' Palmetto Records, one of the USA's better small jazz labels, they skew towards the 'cerebral' and the 'subtle.' A very good example of this last year was Marty Ehrlich's Palmetto release LINE ON LOVE, a group of musical meditations based on various paintings by a single artist. Or so I recall. Very deep, calm and worth returning to repeatedly. As is this CD, featuring Berkman (piano), Nasheet Waits (drum kit), Dick Oatts (saxes), and Ugonna Okegwo (bass).
Berkman's tunes are sometimes mathematical in an intellectually stimulating fashion, sometimes magical, and often both. "Stone's Throw" is a good example of the 'magical,' as Oatts (whose idea of 'out' is about the same as Lee Konitz') tumbles through the field of small rocks that Berkman's comping suggests, while Waits and Okegwo supply the meadow; during his break Berkman scans the sky with an occasional Morse-code action from the left hand. And it's a lovely day! His pedigree is difficult to put a finger on. Maybe a little Keith Jarrett, a little Andrew Hill; some stride patterns are evident midway through "Triceratops" to diverting effect. The opening "Cells" (all but the last track, a Woody Guthrie folk tune, are Berkman originals) has a quiet stepladder melody, though in true M.C. Escher style the notes switch places part way through and one might get the feeling one is going both up and down simultaneously. A delightful sort of disorientation, and during Berkman's solo he inserts a few notes from "Bluesette" (Andy Williams had a hit with it in the '60s, if memory doesn't swerve). Very cool. Nobody seeks to reinvent the wheel here but I don't really notice a steadfast hewing to any particular 'form' or recognizable quartet template either. We all know the names! But I think any good musician realizes that his or her music can still be his/her own (as this is) and land in a place between those of others. Doesn't make for a very arresting skyline if fewer build on top of others' work, but there's always the 86th floor of the Empire State Building if you want that.
My favorite composition here is "Only Human" because (1) I'm always a sucker for the ballads and (2) there's a lovely germ of Gershwin here I can't quite place. Why is this a good thing? Well, what is music for, anyway? Joe Scianni used to say it was a sonic art form that when done right can synthesize emotion. And "Only Human" tugs at my old ticker for a reason I'm not certain of. "I know not why I am so sad; I cannot forget a song of olden times." (Rilke)
Yeah, that's going to have to cover it.
As for the choppier bits like "Iraq" and "Old Forks," the heads are lengthy and serpentine, the lads jumping out in front of Waits and Okegwo with a careful abandon. No, it isn't a cintradiction here. You buy this and figure it out. Neither should you miss "Quilt"'s Vince Guaraldi-like childish theme and variations, nor Berkman's departing "Mean Things Happening In This World" (the Guthrie cover), a bluesy reading with careful support by Okegwo that accentuates a cautious positive. Will have to go look for the Guthrie tune to see what his words say.
Berkman has 3 other CDs out on Palmetto, those being
HANDMADE, COMMUNICATION THEORY and LEAVING HOME. I invite you to race me to the local Jazz record store to pick at least one of them up-- after you've heard this.
by Kenneth Egbert
New Sounds - August 2004
Jazz Now Interactive August 2004 Vol 14 No. 4 - Table of Contents