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Borah Bergman: You Must Judge A Man By The Work of His Hands

AAJ Staff By

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Borah Bergman is a one-of-a-kind pianist, composer and improviser whose originality lies in his entirely unique approach and utilization of left-handed and cross-handed techniques. Influenced by Lennie Tristano's hornlike phrasing and Monk's stride, Bergman has prolifically released on average one to two CDs a year since the early '90s (primarily solos and duos) featuring Thomas Chapin, Roscoe Mitchell, Oliver Lake, Evan Parker, Anthony Braxton and Peter Brötzmann. Last month, AAJ-New York caught up with Bergman at his Upper West Side apartment.

All About Jazz: You have a unique two-handed technique. Speak of your left hand, your crossed hand style and your ambidexterity.

Borah Bergman: I saw that originality is the great equalizer. It cuts through everything, through all the impediments in the way...I decided to do something that nobody else was doing...[and became] consumed with developing the left hand. Nowadays I take it for granted, but then I got involved in learning how to play crossed hands... With crossing the hands over, since the structure of the hand is different...you could be thinking of an ordinary progression and the whole thing is kind of mixed up, but since you know harmony, you can in some way devise a certain sound that works.

AAJ: When did you begin to develop this concept?

BB: My father died when I was about 23. I know that some place in this obsession that I had, my father was there some place...at 25 I started to really practice and it was then I had an idea of playing with the left hand. The left hand is symbolic for me. My parents took me to a concert when I was a teenager: Paul Wittgenstein, [for who] Ravel wrote that beautiful "Concerto for the Left Hand Alone." Wittgenstein had one hand, the left hand, but I didn't know it when I was watching him play because he had this big cape on! I was wondering why he was gyrating all over the place... Something else happened. I saw a Fats Waller record. The back notes said that Waller took lessons from Leopold Godowsky who re-wrote the Chopin etudes and wrote pieces for the left hand alone... Then there were stories where one night Bud Powell couldn't play with his right hand, so he played with his left... Also, I once had a dream where this boy was reaching for a star with his left hand!... All these things got me very interested in playing with the left hand because the left hand up to then was really just comps and chords. [It] was always stressed, but nobody did it in a linear way and before I knew it, 20 years passed by! The thing is, finally I got to a very strong level, but I was not known.

AAJ: You were already in your 40s when you released your debut album [Discovery, Chiaroscuro] in 1975. How did that come about?

BB: Hank O'Neal [owner and founder of Chiaroscuro Records] asked if I would like to record... It's interesting that my first recording [was] after Earl Hines [who recorded for Chiaroscuro just before Bergman that day] left his energy in the piano for me!... [He was] one great pianist. I came in contact with someone from a whole other period; an incredible talent [with an] incredible sense of timing. His right and left hand, the way they related to each other, was just unbelievable.

AAJ: Since then you have created an almost altogether new role for the left hand, setting you aside from other improvising piano players.

ng>BB: At the beginning, there were guys who tried it a little bit: Phineas Newborn, even Billy Taylor used to fool around. But there was a tradition in the piano development that really influenced me: Tatum, the stride pianists and Teddy Wilson [Bergman took lessons from him towards the end of Wilson's career]... The left hand was very important with the stride pianists and ragtime and the Swing pianists had a certain approach. But I wanted a left hand that knew, that could play like the right hand plays with phrasing. And I felt that it was just a matter "of any idiot can do it"—it's just that I was the only idiot doing it [laughs]!

AAJ: What was your background as you were coming into this approach?

BB: Bebop. "Free" came into my playing a little later on... I don't know if I would call myself a "free" pianist because I can also play bebop. I was influenced strongly by Ornette Coleman... I was also very influenced by chamber music and Bach and Dixieland or New Orleans, where all of the instruments were playing contrapuntally and polyphonically. So I figured I'd like to do it myself. The left hand was a perfect vehicle for me. Also, I get these impulses. In order for my impulses to come out, I need a recovery act and the left hand would always recover quickly and make things correct... I take a lot of chances and if you take a lot of chances you could fall on your face, but the left hand would always come and help me out. You can be disorganized, but if you can organize your disorganization, then you're organized [laughs] ... organized chaos.

AAJ: What has this style allowed you to do?

BB: If you're going to write a composition, you can write stuff for the left hand and people could learn to play it. But if you're going to improvise for the left hand and you never know what's coming up next, you just can't play it as if it were a composition. If you're improvising, you have to be ready for anything that can come up... In developing the left hand, I also developed a new concept of fingering by figuring out all the finger combinations...so if that means that the hand has to be turned over, or fingers overlap each other, that's what I do.

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