When David Berkman sits at a piano, any piano, he looks to be at one with the world.In the parlance of Piano Jazz, the guy is a ‘beast’ and his mastery of the instrument is astonishing. Like all pianists of repute he is accustomed to high-end pianos but when he is confronted with an upright, he still makes it sing.The last time he visited Auckland, the CJC Jazz club was located in the basement of the 1885 building. At that point, there was a Yamaha Grand on offer. Three moves on from then, the club is now in the ‘Backbeat’, a warm amenable performance space in Karangahape Road. The piano there is a Kawai upright. ‘Uprights are fine’, he said, ‘You just play more percussively’. I’m convinced that he could make a thumb piano sing or swing – and so it was on this night.
The setlist was a mix of his own tunes and a few well-placed standards. Berkman’s tunes are strong vehicles for improvisation, always melodic and by default, they tend to swing like crazy. With one exception, the standards were Berkman arrangements, and while recognisable they came across as freshly minted masterpieces. Paring the flesh away from ‘All the things’ and giving those old bones a youthful lease on life; finishing wonderfully, gently, with the tag. His Cherokee while closer to the original was also a treat, a real burner. Who dares play that these days (more’s the pity)? Only a killer pianist is who, and contained therein was history, innovation and pure joy. With him were three local musicians who he fondly referred to as his regular New Zealand band. Roger Manins on tenor, Oli Holland on Bass and Ron Samsom on drums.
As I watched him throughout the night, I pondered where he fitted in the stylistic spectrum. Of course, he can range across many styles, but the name Cedar Walton sprang to mind. Later I ran into a musician who said unprompted, ‘This guy and his approach remind me of Cedar Walton’. A musician singled out his comping for high praise. “His comping goes beyond the usual, it is elevated to a high art form. Not just supportive but shepherding you into new territory, bringing out things in your own performance that surprise you”. So all of the above and more applies to him. A drummers pianist, a great comping pianist, a hard swinger. It is therefore not surprising that he shares the bandstand with Brian Blade, Joe Lovano, Billy Hart, Jane Monheit etc. He is also a well-respected educator. Anyone who follows the New York scene will already be a fan as he’s a regular performer around the New York Clubs. For the alert, he can sometimes be caught on the Australian and New Zealand Jazz circuit. If you snooze you lose down-under. Missing gigs like this would be categorised under high crimes and misdemeanors.
He records on Palmetto and his albums are readily available. Recommended is his latest: Old Friends and New Friends – also, Self Portraits or Live at Smoke. For more information go to davidberkman.com. The gig was at Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, March 2019 – last photograph by Barry Young
We don’t get many offshore Jazz pianists visiting New Zealand, but we have seen quite a few over recent weeks. This particular gig comes hot on the heals of hearing Sean Wayland appearing as featured guest artist with the marvellous Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra. Sean had impressed me at the JMO gig and so I really looked forward to hearing him play at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club).
Before he had played a note Sean Wayland won us over with his easy-going banter. Especially when he thanked us for Mike Nock and mentioned band mate Matt Penman. These are two of Auckland’s best-loved sons and I suspect that Kiwi’s, like Canadians, enjoy our worth acknowledged by the big country next door. This generous acknowledgement by a respected New York based (Aussie born) pianist reveals an interesting truth about Australasian Jazz.
There may be a struggle to meet the financial realities, deal with lack of good pianos and the paucity of gigs, but the two scenes continually produce world-class Jazz musicians. The Scenes are in fact so intermingled that it is often hard to know who is an Aussie and who is a New Zealander. Steve Barry and Mike Nock illustrate this perfectly as they live and work in Australia. Roger Manins lives in New Zealand but gigs across the Tasman every other week.
In spite of the difficulties there is no lack of great music coming out of Australasia and the main problem is that of distribution. An upside of this changing business model is that bands travel more. For the keen Jazz fan live music is once again king. We don’t have to wait for a multi-national recording label to tell us what we should or shouldn’t like, we can explore ‘You Tube’ or ‘Bandcamp’ and hear from the artists directly.
Sean Wayland is a hugely respected figure on the Australian scene and in New Zealand as well. He is a very modern pianist, as he moves in circles where new approaches are constantly being explored and new sounds developed. After listening to his compositions I was not in the least surprised to find him supported by the likes of Matt Penman, Jochen Rueckert, Will Vinsen, and James Muller. This is essentially the Rosenwinkel generation. While he speaks that language fluently he is unmistakably an individual stylist. No one sounds quite like Sean.
Sean’s tunes are very melodic. Often unfolding over a simple bass line as with ‘eenan’ off his ‘Lurline’ album. What sounds catchy and accessible can actually be quite complex as his approach to rhythm gives the tunes that unique feel. This is tension and release at its sophisticated best. I have put up a version of ‘eenan’ as a ‘You Tube’ clip which unfolds in subtle and beguiling ways. So beguiling in fact that I dreamed the tune two nights in row. Such powerful hooks are not accidental but the result of careful craftsmanship. There is a strong sense of pulse or swing to his tunes, but approached from a different perspective to that of the more traditional pianist.
This intergenerational shift is one that I hear more often as the changing of the guard occurs. Other tunes played to great effect were his, ‘Trane plus Molly equals countdown” and the solo piece ‘Little Bay’. Both of those tunes are found on the ‘Expensive Habit’ album. ‘Trane plus Molly equals countdown’ hints at McCoy Tyner, but you quickly realise that the voicings have very modern in feel. I can however certainly imagine Kurt Rosenwinkel doing the tune. It is an extraordinary composition where the left hand continuously punctuates the flow with oblique accents. I was left wanting more than the single set and I certainly hope that we get to see Sean again on his next trip back to Australia.
Accompanying Sean were Cameron MacArthur (bass) and Jason Orme (drums). Both accomplished musicians who quickly slotted into the challenges of supporting a world-class and highly inventive pianist.
The next artist up was David Berkman. He has been to New Zealand before and anyone who saw him last time would have jumped at the opportunity of seeing this top flight New York Pianist in action. There is a fluidity to his playing and above all an impeccable sense of timing. This hard-driving post bop fluidity and the big bluesy chords is what most characterises his work.
The Kiwi members of the quartet were Roger Manins (tenor), Olivier Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums). Together they formed a powerhouse of inventiveness and Roger in particular seemed to benefit from this grouping. His solo’s were so incendiary as to cause gasps of surprise and from an audience who are used to such pyrotechnics. While we expect Rogers high wire acts he is always able to surprise us and this night saw him really on fire. David Berkman certainly knows how to amp up the tension and his ability to extol a horn player to reach deeper and deeper is impressive. He worked the room with as much enthusiasm as he would have done in a prime New York club and everyone there appreciated that commitment. This was the kind of gig where you sat back and let the sound wash over you, tapping your feet uncontrollably and yelling enthusiastically between numbers.
David Berkman’s repertoire was a well-balanced mix of his own compositions and some lessor known standards. During the gig he talked about his mentor, the much respected pianist Mulgrew Miller (who sadly passed away that very evening). He has worked with a wide variety of artists such as trumpeters Tom Harrell and Dave Douglas and his contribution to Jazz education is well-known. Having moved to New York some years ago he quickly settled into the routines of gigging, recording and teaching and since then he has been a fixture on the local scene. He travels extensively and is a Palmetto recording artist.
The two pianists were very different, but both were amazing in their way. In David Berkman we heard the history of the post bop era and in Sean Wayland we glimpsed the future.
What: Sean Wayland and David Berkman Winter International Series.
Who: Sean Wayland (p) (leader) Cameron McArthur (b) Jason Orme (d). – David Berkman (p) (leader), Roger Manins (s), Oli Holland (b), Ron Samsom (d)