Monday, May 4, 2015

Pianist Back on the Farm + The Producer Steps Up

Hard to believe it's 17 years since David Berkman released his debut recording for Palmetto Records. "Handmade" featured a splendid quintet including bassist Ugonna Okegwo, saxophonist Steve Wilson, trumpeter-flugelhornist Tom Harrell and drummer Brian Blade. Harrell's brilliant understated solo on "Sense of Loss" is so memorable as is Wilson's equally stunning solo on the title track.  Blade's drumming throughout is sparkling and the interaction of the group quite impressive. Beckman's compositions included several lovely heartfelt ballads. The recording remains one of my all-time favorites.

The rhythm section would stay intact for the pianist's next 2 releases, 2000's "Communications Theory" and 2002's "Leaving Home", both featuring a 3-saxophone lineup and recorded at label owner/chief engineer Matt Balitsaris's "Maggie's Farm" in Pennsylvania.  Berkman would go on to release 1 more for Palmetto (2004's "Start Here...Finish Here", a quartet date) and then get deeply involved with teaching as well as touring in the United States and throughout Europe and the Far East. He formed the New York Standards Quartet in 2006 (that group, with saxophonist Tim Armacost, bassist Daiki Yasukagawa, and drummer Gene Jackson, issued its 4th CD, "The New Straight Ahead" on Whirlwind Records) - the pianist also released a Quartet disk, "Live at Smoke", in 2009 featuring saxophonist Jimmy Greene.
Berkman (pictured left) reconnected with Balitsaris again in 2014, told him about his new group, a quartet with bassist Linda Oh and saxophonist (soprano, tenor) Dayna Stephens. One thing led to another, including the possibility of having Brian Blade in the mix as well as saxophonists Adam Kolker (soprano, alto,and tenor plus clarinets) and Billy Drewes (alto, soprano), and the musicians gathered at Maggie's Farm in March 2014.  The results of their 2-day excursion is "Old Friends and New Friends" and also serves as Berkman's return to Palmetto Records (Balistaris had sold but new owner Missi Callazzo was thrilled to invite the pianist back to the fold.)

The program makes great use of the 3 saxophonists, using multiple variations of their reeds to create many a handsome aural landscape. On the opening track "Tribute", all 3 are on soprano for the opening exposition of the theme with Kolker stepping out for the first solo. Stephens returns to tenor for his spotlight, coming after a heady piano solo.  Ms.Oh keeps the steady rhythm while Blade dances beneath Berkman's rippling piano phrases.  There is a "Maiden Voyage" feel to the chords and airy feel of the piece. The playful "No Blues No Really No Blues" follows; the soprano, alto and tenor  weave in and out of melody (Stephens playing counterpoint to Drewes while Kolker comes and goes). The bassist also utilizes the melody in her strong support, again allowing the drummer to interact with the soloist. The pianist does not enter the song until Kolker's soprano solo 1:45 seconds into the track. During the bass solo, which is just as melodic as anything on the recording, you can hear Stephens quietly playing the counter melody. "Strange Attractions Then Birds" has the most peaceful opening - piano, bass, and drums - leading to Kolker's soprano sax exposition of the melody. After a long solo from Berkman, Kolker and Drewes swoop around each like "birds" playing in the late afternoon sky, going higher and higher, diving down before heading right back up.  Their interactions are exhilarating.

Surprisingly, there are but 2 ballads in the program, the opening track and "Past Progressive", and both pick up speed as the sextet hurtles forward. One could argue that the closing tune, "Psalm", has the makings of a true ballad. The piano leads the group in, sharing the melody with the soprano saxophone and Kolker's bass clarinet for support (he may have overdubbed an extra clarinet part for the return to the theme after the handsome bass solo).  Blade's sparkling brush work, Ms. Oh's wide-ranging bass lines, and the memorable melody line, all make for a pleasing listening experience.

"Old Friends and New Friends" is not so much a return to form as it is, pardon the pun, a return to the farm.  Throughout his career as a leader, David Berkman has never made a dull album because, I believe, he's written a good number of melodies that stick in in the mind long after other pieces have faded away. This music, recorded in late winter, sounds as if it was recorded with the windows open, cool breezes wafting through Maggie's Farm recording studio, the sun lifting the spirits of the participants  Give it a listen - free your spirits! For more information, go to

For your enjoyment, here's "Tribute":

Over the past several years, the name of Oded Lev-Ari has shown up as producer and arranger on albums by Anat Cohen, the Three Cohens, Marty Ehrlich, Ernesto Cervini's Sextet, Basya Schecter, and Melissa Stylianou.  He has also produced several CDs for his wife Amy Cervini including her recent recording with Ms. Stylianou and Hilary Gardner in the guise  of the Duchess Trio. He moved to the United States from his native Israel in the 1990s to study at The New England Conservatory (among his teachers was Bob Brookmeyer.) He really caught the ears of critics when he arranged and produced "Noir", Ms. Cohen's 2007 recording with the Anzic Orchestra.

Considering all the work he has done in both Israel and the US, it's a bit of a surprise that Oded Lev-Ari (pictured left) is just now issuing his debut CD (at the age of 40!).  "Threading"(Anzic Orchestra) features a splendid octet including Ms. Cohen (clarinet), Will Vinson (alto and soprano saxophones), Brian Landrus (baritone sax, bass clarinet), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet, flugelhorn), Gilad Hekselman (guitar), Joe Martin (bass), Matt Wilson (drums) and Mr. Lev-Ari (piano).  There is also a trio of cellos - Alex Waterman, Yoed Nir, and Noah Hoffeld - plus  the voice of Alan Hampton on 2 tracks and Jo Lawry on one.  The integration of the celli with the horn stands out throughout while Ms. Cohen solos with abandon on pieces such as the blues-drenched "Black Crow" (not the Joni Mitchell song). The opening 2+ minutes of that track is among the prettiest blend of sounds you'll hear this year (or anytime, for that fact) and check out Matt Wilson's melodic drums!

There is so much enjoy in this 45 minute program. One hears the influence of Oliver Nelson in the blues-drenched swing and melody line of "Lost and Found".  Matt Wilson's brushes subtly push the song forward, supporting Vinson on his alto solo or dropping a beat beneath the sweet baritone sax sounds of Landrus.  The title track has the feel of Nino Rota meets Maria Schneider is its sensuous rhythm, the lovely cello solo (uncredited), the soprano and trumpet interactions and the swooping clarinet solo. Mr. Hampton's voice and the subtle arrangement of Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye" (the only piece not composed by the leader) brings to mind the work of Joe Henry -  in a fascinating turn, there is an instrumental reading of the same song (it closes the program) with the clarinet as the lead voice and the guitar replacing the piano on the opening section (everything else in the arrangement is the same). The blend of Ms. Lawry's voice with Mr. Hampton's on "The Dance" is hypnotic while the rhythms suggest the influence of John Hollenbeck and the melody a bow, perhaps, towards, Stephen Sondheim. "Voices" opens slowly with long phrases from the the cellos and the introduction of the reed and brass before Wilson pushes the song into high gear. Yet, within a minute, the piece quiets down and goes into a long reverie with instruments moving in and out of the sound spectrum. This time, it's the piano that falls into a steady rhythm and moves the piece forward. The soulful "E and A" has a quiet opening before Vinson's soprano saxophone introduces the melody as well as the other voices. At one point, the clarinets, saxophone and trumpet swirl around each other like a Dixieland band, each member playing his or her own variation of the melody.

It's barely May and there have been so many good new recordings issued this year. "Threading", with its wonderful melodies, airy arrangements, and inspired musicianship, is one of the best.  Oded Lev-Ari, who has helped to make so many contemporary musicians and vocalists uncover the truth and beauty in their music, reveals those attributes and more in how own music.

For more information, go to

Here's the delightful "Lost and Found":

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