Josh Berman follows up a debut album that brilliantly collided the very old with the very new, mainly by expanding the harmonic range of his band. Old Idea, which cleverly retrofitted trad jazz with a healthy dose of Bill Dixon, announced to the world that Chicago is big enough for another forward-thinking cornetist (alongside electro-acoustic genius Rob Mazurek). But Berman has since traded in his Old Idea ensemble for a bigger, brasher ride, called “Josh Berman & His Gang.”
It’s a gang that’s stacked with all the brightest from the current generation of progressive jazz players from Chicago’s AACM and Emerging Improvisers/Umbrella Collective crowd: Berman (cornet), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Guillermo Gregorio (clarinet), Jason Stein (bass clarinet), Keefe Jackson (tenor sax), Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone), Joshua Abrams (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums). Jackson and Adasiewicz carry over from Old Idea, but the most notable transition concerns the two extra horns of Gregario and Stein. These clarinetists enable Berman to devise choral figures that gets him closer to an orchestral sound, layering on charts, making the music sound even statelier or busier, depending on what part of the song we’re on. But in spite of these extra players, the music always stays light-footed and nimble, and all eight players stay on the same page through abrupt changes and all-out group improvs.
Stein in particular with his bass clarinet, is the wild card, since such an instrument isn’t strongly associated with prewar jazz. His jagged, schizophrenic lines are what’s heard in the opening seconds of the entire album. You’d hardly think he was leading the band into a rendition Lewis E. Gensler’s 1934 composition “Love Is Just Around The Corner” made famous by Bing Crosby the next year. Berman’s cornet seeks out notes that fit the underlying harmony, just not the most obvious notes; he’s already testing how far out he can go before going completely outside. By the time he hands off the solo spotlight to Bishop, the whole song has gone outside.
“Love,” as it turns out, sets the trend for most of this record. Only three tracks are Berman originals, the rest being rather old songs that will be unfamiliar to most, but used to be very popular — even considered standards — back in the day. Most of these covers were also closely identified with the vintage Chicago jazz of the 20s and 30s.
Bob Carleton’s early jazz standard “Jada” is treated pretty straight for the first three minutes, with Berman’s cornet crackling every so often to carry out the right dose of emotion, that is until Jackson coaxes him out of the 20s and into the avant garde 60s, returning to the comparatively meeker 20s by the end. The showy chorus that announces “Liza” does seem something well-suited for a cabaret at first (pure coincidence, I know, since Eddie Condon wrote this tune some fifty years before Liza Manelli’s signature movie played in theaters), but Berman and his cohorts soon go off the rails and just as agilely jump right back on.
Interestingly, the Maceo Pinkard/Sidney Mitchell tune “Sugar” is played relatively straight, with some slight tempo changes led by Rosaly the only real curves through on this song, but Jackson sizzles through his solo, anyway.
Berman’s own “Cloudy” begins as a New Orleans parade that quickly gets noisy and then abruptly pivots to a labyrinth horn chart. It moves on to more surprises but Rosaly’s second line pulse keeps things moving along. His other original “Mobile And Blues” is indeed a blues, but following the blueprint of his treatment of the old tunes in that it starts off “straight,” breaks down into free jazz and returns to the theme in a mutated state. Stein and Jackson lead the Gang into group pandemonium.
Josh Berman & His all-star Gang are bringing Chicago jazz back to its original heyday in order to bring it forward again. Illogical as that may sound, it makes perfect sense when you hear this record. Josh Berman is quickly becoming a force in the always dynamic and innovative Chicago jazz scene just two albums in. Pay close attention to this guy.