Josh Berman & His Gang

There Now
Delmark DE 2016

Venerating a bit of Chicago history while turning the concept on its head, is the idea behind cornetist Josh Berman’s There Now CD. Titling his seven-piece group as a “gang”, he references the Eddie Condon-Austin High “gang” of the late 1920s, and arranged five of the Chicago School’s Dixieland signature tunes plus three of his own compositions for this project. But the subversive allure of the CD is that it isn’t a Trad Jazz retread, but an exercise in post-modern voice approximation.

Despite the material, Berman and his gang, including trombonist Jeb Bishop reedists Guillermo Gregorio, Jason Stein and Keefe Jackson, plus vibist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly, make no effort to emulate say, Austin High exemplars clarinetist Frank Teschemacher, trombonist Floyd O’Brien or cornetist Jimmy McPartland. All the improvisations could easily be described as avant-garde, and introducing such alien sounds – for Dixieland – as bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and vibraphone to the music, could easily raise the hackles of many Classic Jazzers.

Probably the most descriptive of the cornetist’s re-conceptions of the material occurs with the new garments crafted for warhorses “Jada” and “I’ve Found a New Baby”. On the latter, as Abrams’ moderato plucking outlines the melody around a massed expelling of horn blowing, the theme moves between slippery clarinet timbres and sucked-out plunger growls from the brass players. More staccato than straight-ahead, clarinet quivers soon turn to flat-line split tones as Adasiewicz’s metal bars chime and Rosaly’s drums pop. Finally the theme re-emerges borne on double bass slaps and tenor saxophone vibrations from Jackson. Taken to a lyrical finale by clarinetist Gregorio, the line is simultaneously mocked by faux growling from Bishop’s trombone.

As for “Jada”, vibrating, melancholy clarinet lines isolate it from among horn vamps as the vibraphone rings and the bass thumps. With Bishop again providing the buzzing counter line, the narrative appears to limp along, often finding its jittery vibrations additionally challenged by pressurized hocketing and Aylerian spits from Jackson. Slowing down still further the head variant seems purposely corny when played by the clarinetist.

While fitting in with the general aesthetic, Berman’s own compositions, with their vaguely poetic titles, add an extra layer of modernism to the proceedings. “One Train May Hide Another” is framed with cascading vibraphone variations following a theme that is more closely related to Roswell Rudd’s Free Bop than Condon’s Dixieland. As the reflective narrative bounces along, reed slurps, trombone buzzes and plunger trumpet lines provide parallel yet unconnected comments. “Mobile and Blues” on the other hand showcases a stop-and-start melody led by walking bass that presages restrained clarinet fluttering and wah-wah trombone blasts, accompanied by faux sardonic harmonies from the other horns. When a secondary theme is interpolated, the piece quickens into controlled cacophony, with pressurized brass blows and corkscrew reed vibrations plus Rosaly’s cymbal chops and drum- top rumbles.

Not a disk to play for your grandfather whose fondest memory is seeing Condon and the gang at his eponymously named New York club in his youth, the CD notably proves that any music can be the basis of advanced free improvisation. As a bonus you get to hear a gang of Chicagoans play at the height of their abilities.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Love Is Just Around the Corner 2. Sugar 3. One Train May Hide Another 4. Cloudy 5. Jada 6. Liza 7. I’ve Found a New Baby 8. Mobile and Blues

Personnel: Josh Berman (cornet); Jeb Bishop (trombone); Guillermo Gregorio (clarinet); Jason Stein (bass clarinet); Keefe Jackson (tenor saxophone); Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone); Joshua Abrams (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums)