OLD FRIENDS AND NEW FRIENDS
David Berkman – Piano
Dayna Stephens – Soprano and tenor saxophones
Billy Drewes – Alto and soprano saxophones
Adam Kolker – Soprano, alto and tenor saxophones,
clarinet and bass clarinet
Linda Oh – Bass
Brian Blade – Drums
I once attended a Kenny Werner clinic where he praised saxophone legend Joe Lovano for his fearless refusal to gel into the accepted paradigm of what a saxophone “should sound like.” A similar positive sentiment struck me as I listened to Berkman’s return to the Palmetto label for Old Friends and New Friends. Berkman, an exceedingly gifted pianist and composer who is never afraid to mess with “paradigms” employs an entire trio of brilliant saxophonists who could not be further from the movie/studio saxophone archetype. The saxophonists on this date can accurately be described as “musician’s musicians.” All three possess unique sounds and there is not a cliché note among them, which is certainly advantageous, because this is one of Berkman’s most musically satisfying discs to date.
Berkman is no stranger to arranging for saxophone trios. On this and several past albums (Leaving Home, Communication Theory), the ethereal woodwind texture has served his unique compositions well. As a pianist, Berkman demonstrates why he is an unparalleled musician. Possessing a crisp articulation (sometime reminiscent of Chick Corea), an endless well of harmonic invention, and a penchant for rhythmic twists and turns, Berkman has mined a unique voice amidst the legions of skilled jazz pianists.
Although primarily known as a tenor player for his work with Bill Frisell and Paul Motion, Billy Drewes has gained attention as an alto saxophonist with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and Berkman seizes on his daring, freewheeling alto work for this project. Woodwind virtuoso Adam Kolker has developed a distinguished career for his harmonic sophistication and inventive melodic phrasing playing with figures ranging from Ray Barretto to Bruce Barth, sticking to soprano sax on this particular date. The newest saxophonist on this recording, Dayna Stephens has made a splash as an audacious improvisor, playing with figures such as Kenny Barron and Ambrose Akinmusire.
The saxophone trio is backed by an illustrious rhythm section. Linda Oh demonstrates why she has performed with big name players at such a young age, demonstrating monster ears and lithe rhythmic adaptability. Brian Blade again proves why he is one of the most popular drummers of his generation. He is the rare breed of rhythm section mates who can take rhythmically complex tunes and give the impression of distilling them to their lyrical essence.
The disc leads off with the mysterious “Tribute” a homage to his former employer, Tom Harrell. Kolker, Berkman and Stephens thrive in the combination of haunting harmonies and odd meter work. “No Blues No Really No Blues” is a humorous tune that playfully darts around the blues instead of planting feet firmly in it. Drewes and Oh, in particular, really connect on this fun track with a dialogue reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet.
“Past Progressive” is one of the best tracks on the recording. Almost a mini-suite, it begins with a lyrical cadenza by Berkman, followed by haunting solos from Oh and Berkman. As the tempo suddenly picks up, it features dynamic trading from all three saxophonists. “Deep High Wide Sky” is a witty composition based on “How Deep Is The Ocean.” The band excels in quartet form with Stephens in the front line. Stephens and Berkman ebb and flow fearlessly with Oh and Blade with them at every turn. In particular, this track features one of Berkman’s best solos.
“Strange Attractions Then Birds” is unique for the dual soprano saxophone feature for Drewes and Kolker. The tune is the farthest thing from a saxophone cutting session, though. Instead, the two engage in a type of serpentine exchange, complimenting each other with brilliant florid inventions.
After a terrific piano trio reprise of “No Blues No Really No Blues” (featuring stunning brush work from Blade), “West 180th Street” utilizes the saxophone trio to excellent effect, the soprano part singing the plaintive melody above the textural interweaving. Berkman follows with one of his best solos on the album, his inventive statements punctuated by Blade’s colorful accompaniment.
“Up Jumped Ming” is the album’s main up-tempo romp. The exciting tune benefits from Blade’s inimitable lilt that has made him one of the most popular drummers of the past few decades and the tune serves as an exhilarating vehicle for Stephens. “Psalm” ends the album on a perfect note with lush woodwind doubling from Kolker and playful solos from Berkman and Oh.
By: Dan Healy