Fascinating music constantly bubbles up from the caldron that is Chicago jazz, the latest example coming from the horn and pen of Josh Berman.
The very fact that he plays cornet, an instrument largely relegated to the history books, and collaborates with some of the most adventurous musical thinkers in the city tells you a great deal about Berman's obsessions: He's inexorably drawn to the past while simultaneously driven toward the future.
Those two impulses course through his newest recording, the tremendously appealing "There Now" (Delmark Records), in which Berman partners with such musical free thinkers as trombonist Jeb Bishop, vibist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Joshua Abrams, drummer Frank Rosaly and reedists Guillermo Gregorio, Jason Stein and Keefe Jackson.
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Anyone who follows creative improvisation and composition in Chicago knows this is an all-star cast but, more important, these innovators have worked with each other in various combinations for years. Their performances on "There Now" underscore the point, for only instrumentalists deeply acquainted with Berman's past-meets-future aesthetic (an oversimplification, to be sure) could have crafted a recording as chronologically improbable as this.
The music here combines haunting phrases and gestures of early, pre-bebop jazz with bracing, avant-garde experimentation. Yet the results sound thoroughly organic, Berman and friends intertwining the two idioms more than merely juxtaposing them. The early-period passages, in other words, bristle with contemporary dissonance; the more provocative moments carry echoes of much earlier rhythmic ideas.
So listeners who wish to revel in jazz nostalgia will not find easy listening here, while those who consider 1920s and '30s idioms relics of the past will not be able to avoid them.
Berman, to his credit, honors both in the recording and in conversation, which helps explain why "There Now" proves so persuasive. Whether offering freewheeling improvisations on vintage tunes such as "Love Is Just Around the Corner" and "Sugar" or penning originals that embrace multiple jazz eras, Berman seems intent on devouring an entire century or more of jazz vocabulary.
"When I started playing music … my first idea was not to become necessarily a knowledgeable jazz musician," says Berman, who celebrates the release of the CD on Sunday at the Old Town School of Folk Music. "It wasn't in my mindset. I wanted to be an artist and a free-jazz musician.
"And I think the discovery of Steve Lacy," adds Berman, referring to a revered soprano saxophonist who similarly explored old and new idioms, "and his connection with traditional jazz" made the difference for Berman.
So in 2007, the cornetist set about transcribing historic recordings from the late 1920s and '30s, thereby gaining an intimate knowledge of how pre-bop jazz was constructed.
"But the thing about transcribing this music — you can't just transcribe," Berman explains. "To get to the bottom of the horn, any horn, you've got to listen, you've to write down, you've got to think about it, you've got to let the mistakes be the mistakes. … You love it, and you want to possess a little of it, and you kind of internalize it and put it away.
"I'm not a transcriber where I have everything written down. I take phrases, I put it together. I'm not attached to any one piece of it. It doesn't have to be perfect. For some folks, maybe that's a drag, but that's how it stays in the category of somewhat original music."
"There Now" is nothing if not original, Berman and colleagues drawing inspiration from the past to create a future of their own. The bandleader is quick to point out, in fact, that much of the heavy lifting here is done by his colleagues.
"I don't want to tell them how to do it," Berman says. "Guillermo (Gregorio), you don't have to tell him what to play. That's what he does.
"Frank (Rosaly) really knows how to deal with that music. … I've played with him a lot for 10 years or so. We worked hard on it. It's developed in rehearsal, it's developed in performance, but it relies so much on those guys being what those guys are."
The toughest part of creating "There Now," Berman adds, wasn't so much transcribing the old scores, penning the originals or developing a concept on how to proceed in two musical epochs at once. Much harder was putting the planning aside and simply proceeding with music-making.
"I do a lot of playing at home and lot of thinking, piecing the whole thing together," Berman says. "But I had to really just kind of let go, put it in front of them (the musicians)."
The result is a music that teems with a spirit of invention yet builds intelligently on the innovations of another era. It's no small feat on recording. Come Sunday, we'll get a better idea of how it fares in concert.
Also worth hearing
Ira Sullivan: The multi-instrumentalist hasn't lived in Chicago for decades, but his musical identity was forged here and he returns regularly, making him practically a part of the scene, especially as Chicago Jazz Festival week approaches. As always, Sullivan will be in residence at the Jazz Showcase, leading a quartet and collaborating with visiting jazz figures as they arrive in town. This weekend, he'll lead a quartet. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $20; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com