by Ian Mann
December 30, 2021
An impressively diverse album that explores a variety of musical styles. Berkson’s writing is intelligent and colourful and helps to bring out the best in his collaborators.
(Freestyle Records FSRLP133)
Dan Berkson – piano, electric piano, Andrea Di Biase – double bass, Jon Scott – drums
Magnus Pickering – trumpet & flugelhorn, Alam Nathoo – tenor sax, Daniel Sadownick – percussion
“Dialogues” is the début jazz recording by the American pianist and composer Dan Berkson, a musician who was based in London between 2001 and 2019. Berkson immersed himself in several facets of the capital’s music scene and this album was recorded in 2019, just before Berkson moved back to the US to relocate in Oakland, California.
Berkson’s story is an interesting one. Born in Evanston, Illinois he got his first professional music gig at the age of thirteen backing a play at a small theatre in Chicago – but more on that later.
At this time he was also studying piano with the Chicago based boogie-woogie veteran Erwin Helfer, who in turn had worked alongside gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and ragtime and jazz pianist Glover Compton (1884-1964).
This helped to give the young pianist a grounding in the gospel and blues traditions.”Getting into that before jazz was, I think, very helpful”, comments Berkson, “it gives a depth, and a lot of my favourite musicians have a bit of the blues in their playing, no matter what else is going on”.
He remained open to a broad range of influences, playing in funk bands and also immersing himself in Chicago’s house music scene. He also absorbed the influence of the Austrian electronic duo (Peter) Kruder & (Richard) Dorfmeister, who frequently incorporated jazz elements into their work.
In 2001 Berkson re-located to London and became involved with the house scene in the UK, working as a DJ and producer and forming a prolific live / production duo with James What. As Berkson & What the pair recorded frequently and played to huge audiences internationally, including visits to Russia and Brazil.
Eventually feeling restricted by the stylistic constraints of house music Berkson returned to jazz and the piano and enrolled at Trinity College for post graduate studies, whilst also working as a producer and maker of library music.
Berkson was at Trinity with such rising stars of UK jazz as drummer Moses Boyd, saxophonist Nubya Garcia, keyboard player Joe Armon-Jones and members of Ezra Collective. He got to work with these younger musicians and also established his own piano trio alongside two comparative veterans of the London jazz scene, bassist Steve Watts and the late drummer Dave Wickins. He also co-ordinated a cross generational jam session at the Lion & Lamb pub in Hoxton and appeared regularly at Kansas Smitty’s.
It was at these sessions that Berkson first met the musicians that appear on the “Dialogues” album. The pianist had written a considerable amount of original material for his trio and was keen to get his compositions recorded before he returned to the US.
The album was recorded over the course of two days in November 2019 and features the London based rhythm section of Italian born bassist Andrea Di Biase and Mancunian drummer Jon Scott. The trio had worked together previously at Kansas Smitty’s but could hardly be considered to be a regular working group, “but somehow it worked like magic”, enthuses Berkson. The guest musicians are also part of the Lion & Lamb / Kansas Smitty’s scenes and the album takes its title from the Dialogues Jazz Nights that Berkson used to curate at the Lion & Lamb.
Despite Berkson’s house music background “Dialogues” is emphatically a jazz album, primarily acoustic but nevertheless acknowledging the influence of both funk and electronic music. Berkson’s jazz influences include pianists Carla Bley, Keith Jarrett, Andrew Hill, Paul Bley, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, saxophonists Jimmy Guiffre, Joe Henderson, Cannonball Adderley and Ornette Coleman, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and bassist Charlie Haden, but he also cites his love of the music of Detroit house artists Theo Parrish and Moodyman. He has spoken of bringing some of the qualities of house music into his jazz writing.
Berkson’s broad range of influences, plus the presence of the various guest musicians, help to ensure that “Dialogues” is more than just a ‘regular piano trio session’. He describes the album as “a love letter to London” and has spoken of the effect that each city he has lived in – Chicago, London and now Oakland – has had on his music making.
Berkson hits the ground running with “Unity”, a track previously released as a single that features the core trio, plus all three guest musicians. It was originally written for a Rhodes led quintet that played at the Dialogues jazz sessions with Berkson stating; “I’d say it was equally inspired by my love of hypnotic house and techno as it is by some of the more psychedelic late 60s and 70s jazz records by people like Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock and Cannonball Adderley”.
The moody opening section features the shimmer of Rhodes and vibes, the drone of arco bass and the gentle brooding of Pickering’s trumpet. Di Biase then establishes a bass groove around which the musicians coalesce, evoking that funk infused 60s and 70s jazz sound of which Berkson speaks. Nathoo takes the first solo, his playing fluent and authoritative. This may be his only appearance on the album but he makes it count, his is a very impressive contribution. As the music continues to gather momentum the leader takes over on Rhodes, displaying a real affinity for the electric instrument. Pickering also features as a soloist, in addition to combining effectively with Nathoo. The rhythm team of Di Biase, Scott and Sadownick keep the groove simmering throughout.
“Momentum” sees Berkson to moving to acoustic piano and pares the group down to the core trio. It’s a more conventional piano trio performance with a more orthodox jazz feel, harking back perhaps to Berkson’s formative influences, but still sounding thoroughly contemporary. A commendably interactive group performance features some inventive piano soloing from the leader and impressive features from both Di Biase and Scott, two stalwarts of the London jazz scene. The piece was originally written for piano trio and string quartet during Berkson’s studies at Trinity.
The title of “Maggie’s Last Day” is a reference to Berkson’s young daughter and her last day at a British school before the family’s move to Oakland. Musically the piece is inspired by the late American pianist and composer Andrew Hill and was developed from an improvised melody written by Berkson whilst he was attending an artist residency at Hawkwood College in the Cotswolds. The second half of the tune was developed in the studio from a musical sketch that Berkson had brought in with him. The performance features Pickering on flugelhorn, who was already present in the studio after appearing on “Unity”. Berkson says of Pickering’s contribution; “I think it captures a bit of the Tomasz Stanko vibe, I’m a huge fan of his ECM records”.
Pickering appears in the first half of the piece, improvising melodically above a loosely structured rhythmic backdrop featuring shards of lyrical piano plus the shimmer of cymbals and the soft rumble of mallets. Scott excels in his colourist’s role, his drums briefly coming to the fore to link the two halves of the tune, with the focus now switching to Berkson’s piano and the deeply empathic performance of the trio as a whole, with Bill Evans a discernible reference point here. Pickering returns with more melodic flugel lines, combining effectively with the leader on this lovely, if occasionally abstract ballad. The ECM comparisons are perfectly valid, and this is another track that has previously been issued as a single.
“Maggie’s Last Day” concludes Side A of the vinyl release. The second side features the core trio exclusively, beginning with “Live Bait”, which Berkson dedicates to the memory of the late Dave Wickins, who sadly died of prostate cancer in July 2019.
The tune takes its title from the play “Live Bait”, the production the thirteen year old Berkson had played on back in Chicago. The play was based on a novel about a Civil Rights era interracial friendship written by the feminist cartoonist Lynda Barry and featured a soundtrack of 60s soul and gospel music.
Introduced by a passage of unaccompanied solo piano the tune “Live Bait” incorporates those soul and gospel influences and evokes the era of the play very effectively. Di Biase steps out of the shadows with a melodic and dexterous bass solo that never abandons its underlying sense of swing. Berkson then stretches out more expansively, still in that underlying blues / gospel vein.
The lively “Remember Me” also explores established jazz styles with Berkson’s agile piano soloing fuelled by Di Biase’s rapid bass walk and Scott’s crisp drum grooves. It also incorporates similarly impressive features for bass and drums.
“Sketches” cools things down once more and is an elegant and lyrical ballad that commences with a passage of unaccompanied piano and later features a gorgeously melodic double bass solo from Di Biase. Scott deploys brushes throughout, his playing deft, nuanced and subtly inventive as he again relishes his colourist’s role.
The sombre mood continues on the closing “The Court”, a subtle thoughtful distillation of Berkson’s broad array of influences within an acoustic piano trio format. Elements of jazz, blues and gospel are all discernible, allied to subtle allusions to electronic rhythms. Berkson’s leisurely piano musings are skilfully supported by wonderfully nuanced performances from both Di Biase and Scott, with the drummer again impressing as he again conjures a broad range of sounds and colours from his kit.
“Dialogues” is an impressively diverse album that explores a variety of musical styles and although it represents something of a ‘swan song’ as far as British audiences are concerned it is nonetheless a great way to bow out. Berkson’s writing is intelligent and colourful and helps to bring out the best in his collaborators. Di Biase and Scott are both superb throughout and guests Pickering, Nathoo and Sadownick all make distinctive and significant contributions. Berkson himself plays superbly and is well served by the engineering / production team, who achieve a good acoustic piano sound and a good balance between the different instruments.
I’ve been familiar with the playing of Scott and Di Biase for a long time, but it’s kind of ironic that I’ve only just discovered Berkson after he’s moved back to the States. Nevertheless, on the evidence of this album I’m very glad that I have. Let’s hope that in more normal times he can return to the UK to work with these musicians again.
blog comments powered by Disqus