David Berkman, Self-Portrait Review

AKIE BERMISS: My first admission has to be simply that I am not some huge David Berkman fan.  I’ve known of him for quite some time and I’m always really pleased to hear him, but in the crush of trying to find time to listen to all the piano players out there doing interesting things, I often miss Berkman.  And so, it was an unexpected pleasure to have myself reminded of the recent Berkman solo album, Self-Portrait, before it too slipped away from all knowing.  Why?  Because it really is a fine record.

A solo piano record is probably the greatest test a jazz pianist can put him or herself up to.  Almost all jazz pianist have played solo shows or concerts or events at one time or another, but the fleetingly pleasantness of a jazzy piano is often defeated by the clarity and scrutiny that the recording process loans.  Something that works really well live can come off as just some cute nothing on a record. So it is crucial that the pianist find some way to make the music stand up to repeated listens.  Its a fine line.  Too arranged and the record will likely suffer from stiffness but too improvised and its completely inaccessible. The mix has to be just right.  And most do not get it at all.

There are a few recent examples that spring to mind: Vijay Iyer’s 2010 release, Solo, and the masterful Brad Mehldau record Live In Tokyo.  There have been others, but those two have stuck with me and bear thorough and repeated listens.  And, if I may be so bold, I think Berkman’s Self-Portrait can be added to that number.  What a fantastically considered collection of piano pieces.  Its ranges from instantly recognizable renditions of standards or strangely re-arranged versions of standards to short original pieces Berkman refers to as “sketches.”  The pieces glide in and out of specific time and meter.  Some are very stripped down melody-driven pieces.  Others are intensely nuanced with harmonic shifts and intrigues.

Despite being fully aware of his skills as a pianist, I was unaware of Berkman’s facility with wit and humor when playing.  Of course, the serious and direct emotions come through very clearly, but there is a wry bent to some of these arrangements. Listen to some thing his version of “Sweet & Lovely” and how can you deny that there is some sly humor there?  And that is followed immediately by a gorgeous meditation on “It Could Happen To You.”  Suddenly, its all deep, somber introspection.  At its very best there is a Monkish-ness about the playing that is, for me, the height of solo jazz piano.  Its intelligent, self-aware, fragile, clear, and deep.

So Self-Portrait was a lovely surprise for me.  Not only an excellent musical experience, but it plumbs unpredictable depths with old warhorse songs in one the oldest musical formats in our Western culture.  You are in good hands with David Berkman — pun intended.

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