|David Berkman knows that where you start may not be where you finish. He started college at University of Michigan planning to become a fiction writer, and indeed won some prizes for poetry and other writings. At some point, however, he realized that music was calling him, and he transferred to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, thus beginning his commitment to playing and composing jazz for a profession.
Berkman is often singled out among his peers for his memorable compositions. He explains his approach: When I write, I try to just receive a beginning thought, an idea, as opposed to planning out a certain style of music. I find that the compositions I write this way are more open and have sort of an organic integrity - they are about something on their own terms from start to finish and almost become abstract stories. My interest in literature, words and story lines may influence the shape of my music so that the tunes have a sense of dramatic movement: introduction, early chapters moving to later chapters, that sort of thing. I don't know. But I would say that what I write, at its best, has a kind of weight – an emotional content – that I hope makes the music more compelling. It’s important to me that music be about something.
Berkman’s writing is showcased on his 4th CD for Palmetto Records, Start Here, Finish There. The CD follows Leaving Home, which was named to many best-of-the-year lists (like his earlier two releases) and continued to bolster his growing reputation as an innovative composer, commanding pianist and smart arranger. Berkman created Leaving Home through the help of talent grants awarded by Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Foundation.
Start Here, Finish There features Berkman’s long-time bandmate, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, Dick Oatts on saxophone and Nasheet Waits on drums, his working band for the last several years. Berkman reflects on the CD:
The first piece, “Cells,” is a tune about small bits of information coming
together to make a whole. It's a technique I've used a lot in the past but not so consciously as here. “Triceratops” follows, a tune about the blues, triplets and a three-horned dinosaur. “Iraq” is one of the few tunes I've written trying to express something that was not abstract – a political viewpoint. “Stone's Throw” was written when I was playing with a lot of Brazilian musicians. I originally called it Pedra Roxa Feuile (Ugly Purple Rock) to show that anything sounds beautiful in Portuguese. “English As A Second Language” (I guess music is the first) was an improvisation titled with my wife Shoko in mind. “Penultimatum” is a complex harmonic maze, propelled by Nasheet's amazing drumming. I wrote the ballad, “Only Human,” a few days before the recording session. “Old Forks” is a sort of tribute to Keith Jarrett's writing in the ‘70s. The A section of “Quilt” is one of those warm fuzzy melodies that I had lying around unfinished for a long time until I patched the second and third endings onto it. Finally I heard “There Are Mean Things Happening in This World” on a Pete Seeger recording when I was in junior high school. I’ve always loved the melody and the title is, unfortunately, still true today.
As usual, Berkman offers a diverse and complex range of post-bop and straight-ahead music that is not only thoughtful but thought-provoking.