Pianist David Berkman has been a well-regarded fixture on the competitive New York jazz scene for over a decade. The Cleveland native studied at Berklee and the University of Michigan before delving into the fray of the big city scene. There he got his real schooling, playing in groups led by Cecil McBee and Tom Harrell, among others. He's worked with an impressive handful of well known players over the years and brings the chops earned and learned to this date. His third outing for Palmetto is a treat. Composed for a Chamber Music America New Works Creation and Presentation Grant funded by the Doris Duke Foundation, Leaving Home
is as fresh as it is familiar. The lessons learned on so many stages over the past two decades brings a level of comfort to the music, though there remain surprising and sometime startling moments throughout the set.
On the opening title piece, braced by Brian Blade's cymbals and Ugonna Okegwo's muscular bass, Berkman shares space with Chris Cheek's superb tenor in a piece that stretches the imaginative palette. The following number, "Creepy," has an element of freedom in the structure, with the three saxophonists (Chris Cheek, tenor; Sam Newsome, soprano; Dick Oatts, alto) colliding in and out of each other's streams. Each takes turns at solos, though the blending is the beauty. Berkman's solo, somewhat reminiscent of Mulgrew Miller in sections, is spellbinding. The forcefulness of quiet is at play in the playful lines of "Unchained Harmony," a tune that tugs at the envelope without spilling fully into the chasm. Again, the interplay of the horns is snakelike, the rhythm team in manic motion until the abrupt end.
"Tangoed Web" features Oatts on flute in a piece that reminds of mid-70s Sam Most. Berkman's solo here is his most conspicuous on the set, stretching and building on ideas. On "Aftermath," Oatts is back on alto; in tandem with the other saxophonists and Blade's exceptional percussion, the work he brings to the session here is extraordinary. The piece moves from tone poem to outside in a wonderful Mingus-esque arrangement that calls to mind "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife."
Berkman's delicate touch is most evident on the only non-original on the program. The closing solo version of "Embraceable You" is beautifully rendered, which can be said equally for all of this superb collection. Mr. Berkman is well overdue for a broader, international profile. This recording would surely facilitate that exposure were it on a major label. This is a first-class set of imaginative and creative music that deserves wider exposure than Palmetto's ad budget is likely to allow. Like the best of independently produced music, it may take some effort to track down, but it will be well expended.