All Caught Up
Cornetist Josh Berman got a late start in jazz, but you cant tell from his debut album as a bandleader.
Josh Berman Old Idea (Delmark)
June 4, 2009
Josh Berman’s Old Idea
Wed 6/3 (two sets), 9:30 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 773-227-4433 or 866-468-3401, $7.
Sun 6/7, 10 PM (two sets), Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, 773-935-2118, donation requested.
Tue 6/16, 5:30 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-397-4034. Free, all ages
Download an mp3 of Berman's "Almost Late"
Most musicians who play jazz had years to get comfortable on their instruments first—in part because they started playing in a middle-school band program. But cornetist Josh Berman didn’t pick up a horn till he was a senior at Elmhurst’s York High School in 1989, though he’d already spent a year religiously listening to Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon.
“I was convinced that I would rent this trumpet and I would know how to play,” he says. “I really thought that. That was a very discouraging week.”
After he accidentally crimped its bell, he had to buy that rental horn for $200. But then he just stashed it away. “I couldn’t blow a note,” he says. “I had no idea what I was doing, and I kind of stopped.” Though he picked it up again in college, he didn’t take his first lesson till after his freshman year. He could see just how vast the gulf was between what he wanted to play and what he actually could, and knew it would take him many frustrating years to cross. Even in the late 90s and into the aughts—as he developed into a promising figure on Chicago’s jazz and improvised-music scene—he remained painfully aware that almost everyone he was playing with had years of experience on him.
Berman, now 36 (and for the past ten years a cornet specialist), has made strong showings on albums by Rolldown, the Chicago Luzern Exchange, the Lucky 7s, Fast Citizens, and Keefe Jackson’s Project Project, among others, and he’s led many groups of his own. But not till last month did he release his first record as a bandleader. Old Idea (Delmark), recorded with a quintet of the same name that includes reedist Keefe Jackson, vibist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Anton Hatwich, and Japanese drummer Nori Tanaka, feels like a statement he’d been waiting a long time to make.
The album is a definitive portrait of Berman’s art as it now stands. His sturdy postbop compositions and the band’s concise performances gracefully embody the hybrid approach favored on the local scene anchored by Umbrella Music, the presenting group Berman helped found—that is, free-improv openness applied to structured tunes based on chord changes. But Old Idea also speaks to some influences he doesn’t necessarily share with his peers: while they rarely look back further than the late 50s, he draws on prewar idioms, especially the early-jazz language of horn men like Ruby Braff and Rex Stewart. (These are even more evident in his septet, Josh Berman & His Gang.)
Berman’s musical career very nearly didn’t happen. In 1990, when he started at Columbia College, he planned to study film. But in the dorms he fell in with drummer Weasel Walter, who was still a year or so away from cofounding the Flying Luttenbachers and beginning his tenure as a Chicago free-jazz gadfly. “Within the first three months,” says Berman, “Weasel said he was going to start a band with nonmusicians. He was like, ‘I’m over all of these musicians.’” Walter convinced Berman that his lack of training didn’t have to be an obstacle, and with future Luttenbachers bassist Bill Pisarri and several others, they bashed out noisy free-form sets in a third-floor dorm lobby a few evenings a week.
“It was so art school it wasn’t even funny,” Berman says. But Walter helped keep him going. “He would listen to me play . . . do you know what it’s like to listen to someone who can’t play the trumpet?” Soon, he says, “I became a little square in that context, because I began wanting to really know how to play. I didn’t want to just fuck around.”
Walter was volunteering for Southend Music Works, an important local free-jazz presenter in the early 90s, and Berman followed suit. He regularly snuck into the Bop Shop (on Division, where Bob San sushi stands now) to hear old-school hard-bop saxophonist Lin Halliday, and he soaked up the records Walter spun for him in their dorm. “He was the first person to play Ornette, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Contortions, and Teenage Jesus for me,” says Berman. “I was still working out what was cool about Dexter Gordon and Birth of the Cool, and then all of a sudden the world just kind of opened up.”
After their freshman year Berman and Walter shared an apartment in Wicker Park, paying $130 apiece in rent. Berman landed a part-time job at Kill the Poets, a cafe next to the Bop Shop, and through Halliday he met trumpeter Brad Goode. “He gave me my first lesson and my first real trumpet,” says Berman. “He was so generous with me. I was still ridiculous. I asked him how long it would take me to figure it out, and he was like, ‘Ten years.’ He didn’t even think about it. I said, ‘Dude, I’m going to be 28 by then. I’m ready now!’ He said, ‘The only thing that gives you an edge is your seriousness about this.’”
Once Berman had taken a handful of lessons, Goode suggested he learn music theory. Berman decided to move back home to Elmhurst and on Goode’s advice began studying with Tom Tallman at the College of DuPage in nearby Glen Ellyn. But he was unfocused: he was working at Jazz Record Mart and trying to play music with people in Chicago, and the distractions of dating made it hard for him to stick with a practice regimen. After a couple years he figured he wouldn’t be able to fit jazz into his future and decided to pursue a “real” vocation.
He enrolled at Western Illinois University in Macomb in 1994, intending to become a social worker. “I went down there to quit playing trumpet,” he says. “I thought I was going there for some kind of purgatory.” But on his third day at WIU, he met the school’s trumpet instructor and his resolve crumbled. By 1998 he’d not only earned a BSW degree but taken a full complement of music classes, mostly in theory and history. He came back to Chicago that summer and fell in with a new clutch of musicians, most of them connected to DePaul University: reedists Dave McDonnell and Aram Shelton, vibist Jason Adasiewicz, drummer Mike Reed. He studied with reedist Richard Corpolongo and went back to work at Jazz Record Mart; for most of the first year he would practice after closing, from 8 PM till midnight.
He was also gigging with a variety of short-lived groups at spaces like the Nervous Center, the Empty Bottle, and Phyllis’ Musical Inn, but he still didn’t feel like he’d caught up with his peers. In the WIU big band he’d taken many of the solos but had trouble with written scores. “Through all of this stuff I’ve always been at the bottom,” he says. “It made me think that I really had to get my own thing together. I was at home listening, playing long tones, transcribing solos, and slowly figuring shit out. I was older than everybody, but I knew this stuff had to get done. While I was working on this, other people were already starting to go their own way.”
In 2002 at the Bottle he played his first gig with an ensemble he’d organized and written music for. Though the performances were solid, he was convinced his tunes were terrible. He began to focus on composing as well as playing: he’d put together a new group, write a new batch of songs for it, and do a few gigs before moving on to the next project. “Adasiewicz would always joke, ‘What was wrong with that band?’” he says.
In 2007 Berman finally had all the pieces in place. He recorded Old Idea at Leroy Bach’s home studio just as Tanaka’s visa was about to expire. “I could feel that this was the first time everything had come together,” he says. And now that he’s hit his stride, he seems determined to cover some ground: Old Idea, now with Marc Riordan on drums, is playing several local gigs to celebrate the new album before hitting the road later this month to play New York’s Festival of New Trumpet Music, organized by Dave Douglas, and a series of east-coast and southern dates.
Berman’s also keeping plenty of other projects going. This summer he’ll play a few shows in the Bay Area, including one with old friends Shelton and Walter, who’ve both relocated there; they have a trio record coming out in July. He holds down a regular Monday gig at the Old Town Ale House, doing standards with guitarist Matt Schneider and bassist Jason Roebke, and plays on forthcoming albums by Fast Citizens, Rolldown, Chicago Luzern Exchange, and a quartet with bass clarinetist Jason Stein called Slow Cycle.
“I feel good now,” Berman says. “I had to get over the fact that it was going to suck for a while. I worked very hard and slowly toward something.”
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