Josh Berman - Old Idea

Josh Berman – cornet
Keefe Jackson- tenor saxophone
Jason Adasiewicz – vibraphone
Anton Hatwich – bass
Nori Tanaka – drums

Josh Berman’s first album as leader was a long time coming, but that’s OK. Old Idea is no rookie quickie: its too nuanced and layered for that, wide ranging and confident, the work of players who interconnect like telepaths and a leader who points them in the right directions. If they’re ideas are old it’s not as in old-fashioned, but well seasoned.

Every jazz fan is enamored of old ideas—that’s why we have record collections—and every musician nowadays has broad listening habits. But not every brass player’s tastes lead him to Bill Dixon (on Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador: “his weird lyrical thing in the center of all this freedom”) and Ruby Braff (for the opposite: traditional settings, oddball solutions). That’ll give you some insights into Berman right there. His playing—by turns pleaful or confidential, urgent as a bugle call, sardonic or puckishly witty—puts all that careful listening at the service of a personal voice.

“I’ve had lots of bands, but still, part of me wants to hide a little,” Berman says, explaining why he waxed this debut at 34. But he was hiding in plain sight. He’s already recorded some—as, say, part of a quartet on Chicago-Luzern Exchange alongside tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson, with Jackson’s big and small bands Project Project and Fast Citizens, with Jason Adasiewicz’s quintet Rolldown and Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra. For a decade Berman has been a mainstay of the post-Vandermark generation of Chicago improvisers, a wide circle of ambitious musos who meet up in varied ad hoc or fixed settings: a circle including all the players in Josh’s group Old Idea.

The Berman Story: Born in Chicago, 24 September 1972, he’d been a jazz fan since a teacher turned him on in high school, but didn’t play. (He’d rented a cornet for a week and discovered “you couldn’t play just because you like Miles Davis.”) Attending Columbia College as an art student, he landed across the hall from rough multi-instrumentalist Weasel Walter, who was putting together a band of non-musicians. “He said, ‘Look, man: you could be playing today!’”

Berman borrowed a trumpet, happily blasted his brains out with Walter, for months. “I wanted to be a free jazz trumpet player, but thought, maybe I should learn how to sound like I could play jazz.” That took awhile: “I didn’t even know how to practice.” But slowly it came together: lessons with straightahead trumpeter Brad Goode, big bandleader Tom Tallman and classical virtuoso Bruce Briney, schooling in theory from John Murphy, an ear-opening Paul Smoker gig…. Josh listened voraciously, working off an on at one of Chicago’s great treasuries of recorded music, the Jazz Record Mart. Along the way he switched from trumpet to the warmer cornet.

But just as he started to connect with emerging improvisers like drummer Chad Taylor, Berman left town to finish college. When he came back in 1998, everything started to click. He met and bonded with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz—“countless hours, playing, thinking, experimenting”—and tenorist Keefe Jackson. “When he came to town from Arkansas in 2001, I knew immediately he was the saxophonist I wanted to play with. He’s lyrical but capable of stepping off the edge, with no reference points—he takes it farther than I do.”

In 2006, Berman and Jackson were on a duo tour down South, and kept running into the Chicago band Lay All Over Its. Their bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Nori Tanaka had their own special groove going. That stuck in Josh’s mind. At the time of this recording Tanaka and Jason Adasiewicz had been playing in the trio AAT with bassist Josh Abrams.

“I’ve known Anton Hatwich since he first got rolling around 2002,” says Berman. “He’s a consummate musician: one way I think of him is as a jazz guy who can play free.” Which tied in with the direction Berman was heading toward himself: “The way I think about this band, it always comes back to time and jazz.”

Indeed, Tanaka’s swing feel is a conspicuous asset: what he does on “Nori” more than justifies naming it for him. Dig the drummer’s slow deep push on “D Flat,” the way he sneaks up on an stately, oddly MJQ-y trio take of “Next Year,” his personalized clavé beats behind vibes on both “On Account of a Hat” and “What Can?”

Adasiewicz has been widely and rightly praised, for his expansive vision of the vibes, pursuing the exploratory vein all too briefly mined by Bobby Hutcherson in the 1960s. He values Monkly percussive clanks as well as pretty doorbell tones. Monk’s lean comping informs Jason’s work behind Josh on “D Flat.” He minds the chord changes in his oblique way but he’s also aware that sometimes the perfect thing to play is nothing at all.

Berman’s cornet solos are infused with lyricism and vulnerability, even when the material suggests other ways to proceed, and he has a way of tossing off tricky phrases as if it were no big deal. (Hear his solo on “Let’s Pretend.”) You might trace that last quality to another early inspiration, Dave Douglas, but Berman knows vulnerable-sounding, puckish cornet has a long tradition. “Rex Stewart on Ellington’s ‘Morning Glory’—what else can you say?”

Aside from the countless times these players had met up on the bandstand in various combinations, Old Idea played a half dozen gigs before recording in 2007. (Cruel stupid irony: shortly thereafter, Tanaka was forced back to his native Japan, having failed to convince the INS of his merits as an artist.) Berman had written the tunes over a couple of years, often with Jackson or Adasiewicz in mind. In rehearsal, he wasn’t shy about giving the musicians specific direction, though he didn’t always have to.

For intricacy that doesn’t trip the players up, hear the opening “Hat.” It starts with a staccato line for well-matched horns (a taste of things to come), replaced by a thorny but circular riff for vibes and bass (which goes on to back the horns’ next line). Drums make a delayed entrance, softly playing with and against that vibes/bass figure, thereby foreshadowing Nori’s improvisation over the same repeater lick later. Adasiewicz’s solo catches some of that same circular quality. He honors a key lesson Steve Lacy took away from Monk: that the composition and improvisation should be part of the same package, reflecting the same sensibility.

The way things keep coming back gives the program built-in unity: “I wanted to make a record,” Josh says simply. Themes return transformed as in a novel. The descending horn line on the head of “Let’s Pretend” returns on vibes and tenor toward the end of Josh’s solo, in a loose cascade the players gradually tighten up. (I’d told Josh the piece’s sauntering gait, aggressively creative vibes and horn blend reminded me of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. He recognized the parallels—“free/not free, time/no time”—but it wasn’t a conscious influence.)

This things-coming-back is most obvious in the three takes of “Next Year,” very different from one another. Berman and Jackson play it in duo, demonstrating how much time they’ve spent phrasing together and blending their tones. That version is counterbalanced by that rhythm trio take where Adasiewicz demonstrates his luminous sound and disarming Milt Jackson bluesiness. Finally, the full quintet’s reading is surprisingly spare, phrases separated by pregnant rests, the colors thinly applied: a ruckusy band’s restrained finale.

Josh Berman says Old Idea cut a few more versions of “Next Year” to give listeners a sense of the possibilities in the material. But then, these five players do that even on the tunes that appear just once: the band’s resourcefulness, high level of engagement and conceptual clarity come across in everything they do. That’s where countless hours of playing, thinking and experimenting together will get you.

–Kevin Whitehead