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David Berkman: Old Friends and New Friends

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David Berkman should be more famous. In a jazz world where everyone wants to be a composer, Berkman was born one. He is a natural. The nine tunes here are new, but like all good songs, they sound like they have always been there. “Tribute,” for Tom Harrell, moves with its own slanting, sideways step, always toward unfamiliar lyricism. “Past Progressive” and “West 180th Street” are quietly passionate, encompassing melodies. You do not so much listen to them as let them wash over you.

Bassist Linda Oh and drummer Brian Blade are a sophisticated, volatile rhythm team. Adam Kolker, Dayna Stephens and Billy Drewes play five different reed instruments. Berkman’s piano flows through everything, in bright streams of intelligence. The solo firepower is formidable. “Tribute” contains a looping soprano saxophone effusion by Kolker and a halting, suspenseful tenor foray by Stephens. On “No Blues No Really No Blues,” Drewes leads on alto but Kolker and Stephens are a choir of counterlines all around him. On “Deep High Wide Sky” and “Up Jumped Ming,” Stephens, on tenor, is loose, powerful and personal. On “Past Progressive,” three saxophones rotate, more intense with each turn. Oh, as articulate as any horn player, also gets major solo space.

But solos are woven into the organic, complete album concept of Berkman the composer-arranger. With all those reed instruments at his disposal, he creates a dedicated color palette for each song. The variations of three-woodwind harmony are vast. On “West 180th Street” and “Psalm,” Berkman uses the reeds to create shifting orchestral backgrounds for his own lucid, precise piano.

In an album dependent on subtlety, nuance and refinement, it is enormously beneficial that the audio quality is so vivid and detailed. The overtones and decays of Blade’s meaningful cymbals have never been better recorded.

Originally Published