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David Berkman: Old Friends And New Friends

Dan Bilawsky By

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Pianist David Berkman has come full circle with Old Friends And New Friends. He's back on Palmetto records, the label that released his first four records as a leader between 1998 and 2004; Matt Balitsaris, who helped shape and capture the sound on those albums, is back at the helm, serving as engineer, co-producer and sounding board for Berkman; and Brian Blade, the always in-demand drummer who appeared on three of Berkman's Palmetto releases, has returned to the fold. But don't be fooled into thinking this is some sort of musical retread. Over the years, Berkman's writing and playing have continued to evolve, he's widened his circle of collaborators, and those collaborators—new(er) friends like bassist Linda May Han Oh and saxophonist Dayna Stephens, old friends like Blade, saxophonist and Vanguard Jazz Orchestra stalwart Billy Drewes, and criminally underrated multi-reedist Adam Kolker—have altered the sound and direction of his music.

Old Friends And New Friends opens on "Tribute"—Berkman's salute to erstwhile band mate Tom Harrell. Berkman's chordal work sets this 5/4 vehicle in motion, Kolker's soprano speaks gracefully and beautifully, and Stephens shows extreme patience and relaxation in his movements. From there, the album takes a more playful turn with "No Blues No Really No Blues." Oh and Blade are completely in sync with one another here, backing Drewes' melodic discourse, Kolker's soprano solo, and a multi-horn tangle. Further down the line, Berkman delivers a trio take on the same song with the heat dialed back a bit, but the energy is palpable on the take with the horns.

Berkman takes full advantage of the three-horn front line throughout this journey. And why wouldn't he with players like this? "Past Progressive," which opens on reflective piano thoughts and Oh's musings before it shifts gears, features cycling saxophone solos, with each horn player firing away, passing the baton, and, eventually, joining in for a dovetailing pas de trois. Later, on "West 180th Street," Berkman uses the horns to create pastel harmonies. A lesser rhythm section might have simply resorted to playing something like a simple and steady Brazilian-based groove behind this one, but Blade and Oh don't bite. They're all about interplay and movement, not stasis. Berkman wisely cedes lots of solo space to the horns throughout, but he also delivers his fair share of eye-openers. He steals the show on a driving Freddie Hubbard salute humorously dubbed "Up Jumped Ming" and makes his mark on the jaunty "Deep High Wide Sky," to mention just two standout solos.

All of the music recorded here speaks with extreme clarity and presence, due in no small part to Balitsaris' work. It's so aurally lucid, in fact, that it makes numerous dates with similar instrumentation seem sonically stifled by comparison. Oh's bass sounds like it's in the room with the listener, Blade's sizzling ride ripples through the speakers as the rivets clearly whisper and shiver, Berkman's touch is wholly perceptible, and the warmth and tone of the horn players is captured and preserved. With music that resonates so deeply and sound that's superb, Old Friends And New Friends has it all.

Track Listing: Tribute; No Blues No Really No Blues; Past Progressive; Deep High Wide Sky; Strange Attractions Then Birds; No Blues No Really No Blues (Trio Version); West 180th Street; Up Jumped Ming.

Personnel: David Berkman: piano; Dayna Stephens: soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone; Billy Drewes: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Adam Kolker: soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Linda Oh: bass; Brian Blade: drums.

Title: Old Friends And New Friends | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Palmetto Records

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West 180th Street

West 180th Street

David Berkman
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