A first listening to or first glance at Start Here, Finish There might lead you to one of two false conclusions: that pianist David Berkman is interested only in exploring rigid rhythmic forms or that he is an overtly political musician. But focused listening soon casts those conceptions aside as it becomes clear that Berkman and the members of his quartet—saxophonist Dick Oatts, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Nasheet Waits—are far too subtle and expansive to be so easily labeled.
Admittedly, the first two tracks, "Cells" and "Triceratops," each built around a repeating rhythmic figure, seem like formalist exercises, albeit engaging ones. The disc takes a turn, however, with a series of pieces sporting politically suggestive titles, but seemingly non-political content.
"Iraq," for example, is more reminiscent of "Caravan" than, say, a political polemic by Mingus—though in the final minutes of this, the album's longest piece at over seven minutes, Oatts' saxophone grows plaintive and shrill while his bandmates grow increasingly insistent behind him. The potentially political titles continue with "Stone's Throw" and "English As A Second Language," but neither piece seems terribly iconoclastic. Rather, the first provides a samba beat and an opportunity for Oatts to stretch out a bit, while the second is a meditative piano solo.
Waits' stutter-step drumming is highlighted in the next track, "Penultimatum," as he opens and closes the composition with solo stick work. By this point it is clear that the album is about strong solos and quality ensemble playing on compositions that are both listenable and complex. Oatts' dry-as-a-bone tone melds perfectly with Berkman's style and the drums and bass consistently build an interesting soundscape.
The one cover on the album, Woody Guthrie's "Mean Things Happening In This World," features Berkman alone and his light touch and dissonant harmonies do justice to the catchy but satirical music for which Guthrie was known. The short number is a nice grace note on the end of a CD that flirts with formalism and political expression but is grounded in engaging, stylish music-making.
Personnel: David Berkman, piano;
Dick Oatts, saxophones;
Ugonna Okegwo, bass;
Nasheet Waits, drums.