Chicago cornetist Josh Berman works at a measured pace. Though he’s ubiquitous on the local scene, having played in countless bands and programmed the Sunday-night jazz and improvised-music series at the Hungry Brain, he’s been extremely judicious about recording with his own projects. As a bandleader, he’s made just three albums. “I spend a lot of time at home working on shapes, ideas,” Berman says. “I like playing a lot, but at the same time I like to develop things at home, think about it, and work it out on the horn—and then kind of bring it out. There’s a part of me that wishes I could make a new record every six months, but I think I need to do it my way.”
Josh Berman Quartet
Sun 9/3, 2:20 PM, Von Freeman Pavilion
Also opening for Matthew Golombisky’s Cuentos, Thu 8/31, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $10, 18+
For his bands Old Idea and Josh Berman & His Gang, he’s recruited longtime collaborators and developed a repertoire over years of performances and rehearsals. But for his newest quartet, Berman is trying something a little different. While its lineup includes Chicago bassist Jason Roebke, a Berman regular, the other two members are New York-based players with whom the cornetist has worked only a few times: drummer Michael Vatcher, a veteran who’s spent the past few decades in Amsterdam, and soulful reedist, bandleader, and composer Darius Jones. The quartet’s two shows this week—Thursday at Constellation and Sunday in Millennium Park—will be its first. Berman credits the trio that made his remarkable 2015 album, A Dance and a Hop (Delmark), with facilitating the shift: that group, with Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly (who moved to Amsterdam not long after the sessions), played material that was less charted out and more freewheeling.
“The trio sparked a new way of working for me,” Berman says. “I really loved working that way—rather than coming up with arrangements, you write pieces that are phrases and gestures, some of which can be quite tunelike. I like tunes. With the trio record, I think I figured out a way to do a lot of things I like. I like tunes and I like free improvisation, and I like it when they happen at once.”
After Rosaly moved away, the trio worked with several different drummers, including locals Mikel Patrick Avery and Phil Sudderberg and (on a European tour) great UK free-jazz percussionist Paul Lytton. Berman found that each player changed the sound of the band in thrilling ways. “So I thought, why not do something in the same vein, but with really new people?” he says. “I was relying on the rapport of people who really know how to play together and have similar ideas about what is good. It’s not to say that Darius, Michael, Jason, and I are going to have arguments, but it feels like a different endeavor when you haven’t spent ten years growing up together.”
The music that Berman composed for A Dance and a Hop is elliptical and sparse, and the performances are distinguished as much by what the trio didn’t play as by what it did. He has a profound rapport with Roebke, developed in the dance-and-music project Art Union Humanscape (with Roebke’s wife, choreographer Ayako Kato), and it’s a big part of what made the trio so special. “There’s something so thorough about his playing, but he likes to leave a lot unspoken,” says Berman. Their connection—and their restraint—suggests great promise for the new quartet.
“I have an idea of what I think it will be, but I don’t know if that’s actually how it will sound,” Berman says. “I’m not trying to create formal structures for people to create within. I have ideas for that kind of playing—I did it with Old Idea and There Now—but I really like to improvise. And I also really like pieces. It’s an interesting way of working, to rely on the artistic decisions of the people you’re working with.” v