The name of cornetist Josh Berman’s newest group refers back to the “gangs” led by Bix Beiderbecke or to Chicago’s Austin High Gang, which existed close to a century ago. Although Berman formed this octet under the influence of that era, tackling standards like “Jada” and “I’ve Found a New Baby,” this isn’t merely a retro outfit. If Eddie Condon heard this Gang’s take on his “Liza,” he’d surely be cursing. Berman has said this group is as much about the interaction of Chicago regulars as it is about the music they revitalize. And this Gang plays well together.
All this becomes clear in the opener, “Love Is Just Around the Corner.” After Jason Stein’s bass clarinet clears its throat, the group merely hints at the theme before Berman, Jeb Bishop (trombone) and Guillermo Gregorio (clarinet) straddle hot swing and free blowing. The theme to “Jada” is somewhere in the room at first, but then saxophonist Keefe Jackson transforms it into something new and exciting during his gruff tenor solo. The most interesting revival comes with “I’ve Found a New Baby,” which is played as a beautifully slow dirge that puts Josh Abrams’ bass at the forefront of the commentary.
Berman wrote three of the eight tunes, keeping the feel of the album more on the modern side. Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz—already adding a twist since his instrument was rarely used by the bygone gangs—gets a spotlight on the eerie-cum-romantic “One Train May Hide Another.” Traditionalists might not hear it, but Berman’s Gang knows the classic material, and it’s clear they also know how to keep it vital all these years later.