The cover of cornetist Josh Berman’s album There Now gives me a case of the double-takes. Not for any controversial reason, it’s just that I find myself in a bit of a time warp. I’m transported to a time when Lee Friedlander might have been taking a color photograph of Dave Brubeck in profile while they routinely refer to their entourages as their “gang.”
This is halfway appropriate to the sound of There Now. Josh Berman & His Gang are a reverent combination of old and new jazz—not the result of a painstaking synthesis but, rather, what you get when you want it both ways and are willing to leapfrog your way from one point of inspiration to another. Berman swaps Red Nichols for Ornette Coleman circa 1961 like it’s nothing, leaving your enjoyment of There Now to a coin toss of rich tapestry versus blanket catering. Considering that this is Berman’s second album for the Chicago Delmark label, I know where to place my bet. Chicago’s close-knit jazz scene guarantees a certain pedigree of hired help, sometimes within one record label. Berman’s gang can impress just by glancing at the names. You’ve got Jeb Bishop on trombone, Guillermo Gregorio on clarinet, Keefe Jackson on tenor sax, Jason Adasiewicz on vibes, Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Joshua Abrams on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums. This is just one of the places where Chicago’s young lions come to roar. Berman lends his cornet skills to the Chicago Luzern Exchange (featuring Jackson and Rosaly too) as well as the latest releases by Fred Lonberg-Holm and Adam Shelton.
The gang does it all. The album starts with a guttural skronk on “Love is Just Around the Corner”, of all things. They can throw down a mighty big band swing on “Sugar” and ride that train for all its worth, even when the horn section’s sense of precision gets the better of them halfway through. They can also simmer up a ballad on “Jada” with Gregorio channeling his inner Benny Goodman for the lead. Confusion happens too. The beginning of “Liza” has no anchor whatsoever, taking it from a drunken New Orleans night to a brisk noir freakout thanks to Adasiewicz’s shading. The strangest is saved for last with “Mobile and Blues”. What starts as a (supposed) free jazz conversation eventually turns into a stone storm. Seriously, this track gets absolutely nuts. Berman’s press material mentions his mentorship with Bill Dixon, but I’m seriously thinking of those who did the duck-and-cover maneuver when they first heard Coleman’s Free Jazz.
There Now is a noodle scratcher. It’s traditional and modern. It plays the old game of wowing you with a zippy horn chart then pelts you with improvisation meant for exorcism. It’s main recommendation comes from the individual talents at work, but “individual” is too much of a key word here. Zigzagging is one thing, but the reluctance to gel during the music’s key moments where momentum should spring forth brings to mind the old adage of the whole as opposed to the sum of the parts. Josh Berman & His Gang are playing with a wonderfully reckless idea on There Now. And as good as some passages are, I wonder if nuclear fusion fits Berman’s craft better than welding. He is, after all, just getting started.
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