Chicago-based cornetist Josh Berman exemplifies the best of the current generation of young improvisers. Schooled in the entirety of the jazz tradition, he mixes influences and ideas drawn from diverse eras and genres, tweaking convention while honoring heritage, applying his technical acumen to craft ideas that sound simultaneously new and deeply rooted. One of his most unique and satisfying assets is his avoidance of both undue reverence and postmodernist snark: Even at his most sardonic, Berman conveys musical stories of substance and depth, heartfelt and straightforward.
Berman’s playing unfolds like an ongoing dialogue, both with his bandmates and with himself (and, by implication, with his listeners). Along with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly, he crafts lines that stutter, flow, skitter and swing-sometimes all of that and more over the course of a chorus or two-creating a syntactical hodgepodge that’s nonetheless uncluttered enough to allow free rein to his fulsome, deeply expressive tone. At times he summons a willfully vocal-like effect (e.g., his shrieks, rasps, sighs and guttural imprecations on such selections as “Blues” and “Today’s Date”). But even when his sound is more conventionally brassy, his subtle timbral shifts and expansions and contractions of tone-as well as his masterful use of space and silence-evoke the eloquence of a master conversationalist.
As challenging, even demanding, as this music can be, it’s also welcoming. There’s a warm-hearted openness of spirit to Berman’s playing that should make it accessible even to listeners who may harbor doubts about free improvisation. Everyone can feel welcome at this dance.