Dick Berk is the epitome of an accomplished jazz musician who has done everything except receive the widespread recognition he richly deserves. In a career spanning a half-century, Berk has played in the groups of legendary figures Billie Holiday and Charles Mingus, as well as with high profile musicians like Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, Ted Curson, Blue Mitchell, George Duke, and Jessica Williams. Working on both the East and West coasts, he's recorded prolifically as a leader and sideman, and nurtured up-and-coming talent in a series of bands called "The Jazz Adoption Agency.
The antithesis of the relentless, flailing, hard-hitting attack that has reigned in jazz drumming from the 1960s to the present, Berk makes a profound impact on a band without sounding flamboyant or creating an uproar. Regardless of the type of material, rhythmic feel, or tempo, Berk's alternative to pushy, impatient interaction is providing a steady foundation that supports the ensemble and soloists. He places the drums and cymbals deep inside of the music and never strays from its core. Simply stated, because of Berk's presence, the music always sounds good and feels good.
Between 1990 and 1995, Berk appeared on seven discs for the Reservoir Music label. Berk leads Let's Cool One, East Coast Stroll, and One By One. The rest are under the name of multi-reed man Nick Brignola. Although there's no shortage of recordings from other periods of Berk's career*, these are prime examples of his inventiveness and skill as a drummer. Berk's technique isn't likely to impress fans of extreme drumming or of Buddy Rich. He doesn't indulge in elaborate or rapid-fire displays of sticking, nor does he necessarily regard open space as an invitation to assert himself. Using a wide range of texturesparticularly on the cymbalsto make his points, Berk swings in a traditional, unobtrusive fashion, providing a steady, even pulse. He works closely with the bassist, listens to everything that's going on around him, and acts accordingly.
"Let's Cool One, the title track of Berk's first Reservoir Music release as a leader, provides a good introduction to his sparing and resourceful style. Following pianist Tad Weed's prologue the band takes Thelonious Monk's composition at its customary middling tempo. Throughout solos by Weed, tenor saxophonist Jay Collins, and trombonist Andy Martin, Berk deploys the three hallmarks of his accompaniment: A firm ride cymbal rhythm; judiciously positioned accents; and a continual stream of light cymbal crashes. Everything is as relaxed as can be. Berk doesn't sound particularly busy or assertive, yet the beat never flags and he's always got something interesting going on. A concise ping placed in the center of the beat, neither rushing nor dragging, Berk's ride cymbal is a constant presence that keeps the music moving. The snare has a warm, somewhat broad crack that makes a nice contrast to the ride's continuity. The crashes more often than not sound like an extension of the ride cymbal. Adding a little more density to his overall sound, they make the beat swell. Berk often employs them in unison and in close proximity to snare accents, as well as by themselves. Even when he uses the nimble crash a number of times in the course of several bars, the ride never gets lost in the shuffle.
Berk's minimal drumming on the head of Johnny Griffin's easygoing "That Party Upstairs (Dick Berk, East Coast Stroll, Reservoir Music) has a positive effect on the music despite its inconspicuous demeanor. The slow-to-medium tempo, twelve bar blues is played twice without a walking bass line. Berk largely forsakes the ride cymbal in favor of a couple of brief repetitive patterns and simple fills that are tailored to the contours of the song. Despite the relatively low volume everything is cleanly articulated, including footwork on the bass drum and hi-hat. The key to Berk's effectiveness is the contrast he creates between the low and high sounds of various drums and cymbals, playing one then another, or striking a cymbal and the bass drum in unison for greater timbral variety.
During Jay Collins' seven choruses on the same track, Berk offers a lesson in supporting the vagaries of a soloist's chain of thought. Staying beneath Ray Drummond's bass line in the first chorus, Berk's snare accents stand out just a little from the dependable movement of the ride cymbal, and offer no resistance to Collins' pensive lines. Extrapolating from pianist John Hicks' chords, on the last bar he executes a terse fill between the snare, bass drum, and cymbal that breaks the continuity for just an instant. The final stroke sounds like a chisel piercing a block of granite.
As Collins gradually becomes more animated, Berk offers a number of cymbal crashes, usually in conjunction with hits to the bass and snare. Although he keeps the volume under control, each crash sounds like a mini-explosion. As often as Berk uses this gambit, the sound always comes as a surprise because he never drops the bomb in a predictable pattern. Sometimes he'll create the illusion of a backbeat by nailing them on beats two and four. In other instances he gives Collins a boost by playing crashes during key places in the midst of the tenor saxophonist's phrases.
At the end of the sixth chorus Collins and Berk goad each other to new heights. Berk picks up on his partner's honking eighth note triplets and starts playing the same figure on the snare, building a glorious crescendo then crashing the cymbal hard as Collins reaches a climax.
Two of Nick Brignola's recordings, Live At Sweet Basil First Set, and Things Ain't What They Used To Be Last Set At Sweet Basil, are chock full of exceptional performances by Berk. Although all of the basic components of his style remain in place, he's busier and less inhibited than on the studio dates. Recording engineer Jim Anderson captures Berk's drums and cymbals in near perfect clarity.
Berk displays varying degrees of assertiveness while accompanying two of the solos on "Autumn Leaves (Nick Brignola, Live At Sweet Basil First Set, Reservoir Music). The predominant ping of his ride cymbal is in place for the first chorus of pianist Mike Holober's turn, as well as the customary mixture of graceful cymbal crashes and discrete snare accents. Midway through Holober's second chorus the crashes begin to get heavier and more frequent, and the snare hits turn choppier and insistent. Towards the end of the final chorus, in response to Holober's long, tumbling sixteenth-note lines, Berk offers similar patterns on the snare and (to a lesser extent) cymbal for several measures. After this exhilarating outburst, he resumes straight time for a few bars then, as if returning to make a crucial point, executes a bracing fill to the snare.
Conspicuous in his absence for Brignola's initial two choruses, Berk enters and immediately starts raising the music's temperature. There's not as much of a distinction between the individual components of the drum kit as usual; as a result, the sounds overlap and jostle each other to make up a feisty, joyously swinging roar. Over the course of the rest of Brignola's solo, Berk plays like a man possessed. He moves from long rumbling volleys that encompass the snare, bass, and cymbals, to grounded strokes on beats two and four, to a persistent string of accents that stomp against the beat, to a riff-like pattern in unison with Brignola's baritone sax.
*Reservoir Music recently released My Romance, by pianist Jon Mayer, which features Berk.
Dick Berk, Let's Cool One (Reservoir Music)
Dick Berk, East Coast Stroll (Reservoir Music)
Dick Berk, One By One (Reservoir Music)
Nick Brignola, What It Takes (Reservoir Music)
Nick Brignola, Live At Sweet Basil First Set (Reservoir Music)
Nick Brignola, Like Old Times (Reservoir Music)
Nick Brignola, Things Ain't What They Used To Be Last Set At Sweet Basil (Reservoir Music)