David Berkman and his Sax-Laden Sextet


SIX OF ONE / BERKMAN: Blowing Smoke. Cynical Episode. Blue Poles. Billy. Sincerely. Three and a Half Minutes. Kickstopper. Shitamachi. Restoration. Rain Rain / David Berkman Sextet: Dayna Stephens, Adam Kolker, Billy Drewes, t-sax/EWI/cl/bs-cl; David Berkman, pno; Chris Lightcap, bs; Kenneth Salters, dm, with Tim Armacost, sax; Rogerio Boccato, perc / privately issued CD, no number

So much is made nowadays of small jazz groups using more than one or two horns that one sometimes becomes cynical when the publicity claims such a combination innovative or in some way remarkable. What was truly remarkable, yet a stunning commercial flop, was Shep Fields’ all-reed orchestra of 1941-47. Fields, who led the wildly successful “Mickey Mouse” band called the Rippling Rhythm beginning in 1934, suddenly did an about-face and stacked his orchestra with reeds, reeds, and more reeds, voicing them from sopranino sax all the way down to bass. He also broke with convention by pitting the higher reeds against the lower the way most swing bands pitted brass against reeds, then commissioned some absolutely stunning modern charts with numerous harmonic shifts, smeared figures and other innovations that had a profound effect on many of the modern orchestras that followed him, yet never received any credit for doing so. (He went broke leading this orchestra, which he called his New Music, and had to revive the Rippling Rhythm in order to recoup some of his losses before disbanding for good in 1949.)

I mention all this at the outset not because I am trying to use Fields as a yardstick against which Berkman should be judged, but merely to point out that there was some truly remarkable music created by an all-reed orchestra that has somehow slipped through the cracks of jazz history. Because of this, a great deal of music produced since has been claimed to be innovative that is, in fact, quite good and often brilliant (Miles Osland’s Mega-Sex ensembles at the University of Kentucky is one such ensemble) but not as groundbreaking as jazz critics or publicists think it is.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it is the solo work on this CD that is truly outstanding and inventive, into which the sax ensemble is woven. I was continuously enthralled by the soloists throughout; not one was weak or uninteresting, and that’s quite a compliment to Berkman and his good taste in forming this sextet. On this CD it is actually an octet at times since saxist Tim Armacost and percussionist Rogerio Boccato are added on some tracks.

My sole caveat about the group is that drummer Kenneth Salters’ frequent fractioning of the beat is often at odds with what is going on in the rest of the ensemble. Mind you, I generally like many of the modern drummers because they do not just keep time as in the past, but when you listen to a piece like Cynical Episode with its quasi-Latin sound and notice that Salters isn’t playing anything close to a Latin beat, but rather inserting some kind of funk-fusion groove into the piece, it sounds a bit skewed. The good thing is that the soloists and ensemble go their merry way and ignore him, but that doesn’t really mitigate the disconnect of rhythm between the band and its principal timekeeper. Once again the solos are superb, and there is a nice passage in which Drewes’ alto plays in tandem with a lower reed. Just before the piece ends, Salters finally realizes that he’s supposed to be playing a Latin beat and does so.

Blue Poles is a truly interesting and remarkable piece that begins with Berkman playing solo piano, creating an intricate web of sixteenths underpinned by low, lone bass notes before the ensemble enters playing an attractive but intricate melody in a medium-tempo 4 while the bass underpins them in quadruple time. Once again, Salters is off on his own rhythmic planet, but the solos remain creative and fascinating, particularly the leader’s single-note solo which is based on both the melody and the harmony of the tune, yet creates an entirely new piece with its alternation of rapid 16ths with equally rapid triplets. Oddly, Salters adheres to the basic tempo of the piece in his solo but not always when playing behind the others. There’s a remarkable passage towards the end in which Berkman wrote in some descending chromatics in the underlying harmony.

Billy has an odd, stiffish rhythm, similar to some Mingus pieces but with harmonic and rhythmic twists in it. It starts off with a soprano sax solo before leading into Berkman’s piano, and what I particularly liked about this is that the latter picks up where the former leaves off. The tenor solo, fine as it is, does not; it is on its own set of variations apart from the main theme. Soprano, tenor and alto then engage in a three-way conversation which leads back to a variant on the opening theme—and it’s over. Sincerely is a ballad, opening up with the tenor, but the alto quickly comes in to play behind it and then take over. Tenor and alto solos are then heard (Tim Armacost and Billy Drewes) in tandem.

Three and a Half Minutes is quirky tune with an asymmetric beat, featuring Berkman’s piano, Adam Kolker on soprano sax and Dayna Stephens on tenor. Kickstopper, by contrast, is a more straightahead swinger, although Salters again goes his own merry way except when accompanying Kolker’s soprano solo, at least at first. I was particularly impressed by Armacost’s tenor in particular, and the passage in which the two soloists play against one another. Berkman, as usual, is excellent.

Shitamuchi, Berkman tells is, is the Japanese word for downtown. It was written “for the old section of Tokyo,” though there is nothing particularly Asian about the tune’s construction or harmony, though it is an interesting piece featuring an a cappella passage for clarinet, tenor sax and bass clarinet in interweaving passages. Berkman then plays a repeated riff in the lower range of the piano around which Salter’s drums do their own thing, followed by the reed ensemble in a beautifully written passage. Restoration is another piece dedicated to Japan, in this case “a pleasant neighborhood (Kachidoki to be precise) I occasionally live in in Tokyo.” Berkman, Kolker and Stephens are the principal soloists.

The program ends with Rain Rain, a slightly melancholy piece with a feeling of 3 about it. Drewes plays clarinet on this one, sometimes against Kolker’s bass clarinet. Chris Lightcap also has a very nice bass solo, as does the leader’s piano.

A very nice album, then, despite my caveats about Salters’ drumming.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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