Lest We Forget

Borah Bergman (1926 or 1933-2012)
By Ken Waxman

For someone who didn’t even record until he was in his forties, Borah Bergman’s prodigious talent soon marked him as one of jazz’s most skillful experimental pianist, a reputation he maintained until his death on October 18 last year.

An enigmatic figure, Brooklyn-born Bergman was either 79 or 86 when he died. He claimed he shaved seven years off his age in the biography for his first record date in 1975. That relatively mainstream disc on Chiaroscuro only hinted at his powers, which came to the fore during the subsequent decades in solo performances and as he partnered many of free jazz’s heavy hitters both in Europe and North America.

Bergmann’s improvising was most incredible in a solo setting, since after years of practice he developed his left hand so that he could play as speedily with it as the right; also allowing each hand to operate independently of the other. When he played ballads he used a crossed-hands technique: right hand for bass notes, treble for the left. Often described as an ambidextrous player, he preferred the term “ambi-ideation” since it stressed the equality of both hands.

Ironically for such an Ur-modernist, Bergmann’s first influence, which he often cited, was the powerful near-stride styling of Earl Hines, who he first heard at 12 on the “Potato Head Blues” record with Louis Armstrong. As a teenager he was also impressed by one-handed classical pianist Paul Wittgenstein, famous for commissioning and performing Maurice Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand Alone.” Still by the time he was in his twenties, Bergmann was a bopper, with a preference for the keyboard advances of Lennie Tristano and Bud Powell. During that time he rarely performed in public however, concentrating on his career as a teacher of English and Music in the New York school system and perfecting his unique style with constant practicing.

Crucially, his mature style was seeded in the ‘60s when he first heard saxophone-centred Energy Music. Already impressed by chamber music, Bach and Dixieland as well as modern jazz, Ornette Coleman’s first LPs with Don Cherry, where the instruments played both contrapuntally and polyphonically, made him decide to replicate that freedom in a solo setting. Similarly, the stamina, speed and passion John Coltrane brought to his mammoth solo on “Chasin’ the Trane,” which Bergmann also heard at that time, was another influence. Listening to the LP at 45 rpm he practiced along with it, gradually evolving a stream-of-consciousness method to liberate his own playing from its technical restrictions.

After he was introduced to the producer of Italy’s Soul Note/Black Saint records by the editor of Musica Jazz, and released well-received discs like Upside Down Vision in the early ‘80s, he became renowned for his solo playing. And he was indefatigable. Few will forget an appearance at a late ’90s Vision Festival when he came on after 1 A.M. after a full evening of overwhelming music by a series of downtown bands, and was still improvising at full intensity more than one hour later.

Later on Bergmann aptly demonstrated that empathy existed alongside this technical prowess, sharing recordings with powerful drummers like Hamid Drake and Andrew Cyrille and more spectacularly with reedists such as Oliver Lake, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton and Ivo Perelman, plus advanced European saxophonists like Evan Parker, Frode Gjerstad and, on three separate occasions, fellow go-for-broke improviser Peter Brötzmann. Eight By Three (Mixtery Records) from 1996, with Braxton, Brötzmann and Bergmann is particularly rewarding.

One trio session from 1997 featuring the pianist Brötzmann and Cyrille is entitled Exhilaration. And that feeling is what’s often experienced listening to Bergmann’s matchless performances.

—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2013