Two years after releasing the critically acclaimed Leaving
Home
, composer/pianist David Berkman returns with the stellar
Start Here, Finish There. This outing once again finds
Berkman honing his ability to create idiosyncratic tunes within the
context of traditional jazz. His refined compositions are met with
vigor by the accomplished quartet, which includes saxophonist Dick
Oatts, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Nasheet Waits.

Start Here opens with “Cells,” a ballad with
an intervallic melody on top of peculiar chord changes.
Oatts’s fluid tone produces a melancholy effect that
continues from the first note onward. His sound is an intrinsic
match for Berkman, becoming apparent in the melodic doublings and
solos. Berkman’s playing, like Oatts, is reserved and
understated, and his technical ability takes a back seat to
compositional premise. As the album progresses, his reserve is
relentless, almost to a fault.

Not until four choruses into Berkman’s solo of the
album’s second tune, the quirky blues
“Triceratops,” do we hear the pianist’s bebop
dexterity. Berkman instead experiments with timbre, tonality,
harmony and fragmented melodic ideas, emphasizing ingenuity over
pianistic virtuosity.

Perhaps the strongest testament to Berkman’s talent lies
in his diverse stylistic knowledge. The brief “English as a
Second Language” demonstrates comfort with modern atonal
concert music, sonically alluding to the confusion inherent in the
title’s subject. “Old Forks” retains the feel of
a standard, but moderately progresses to the point of discordant
freedom. Oatts solos without piano accompaniment, creating a
seemingly irrelevant harmonic structure.

In a language overcome with virtuosity and showmanship, Berkman
is the rare example of a jazz musician who sacrifices ego for the
greater musical cause. Although his ideas sometimes falter (as in
the lagging “Iraq”), these shortcomings are easily
overlooked. Start Here is an accomplished effort, an
uncompromised realization of a composer’s vision.

 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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