American-raised Paul Berner has worked with not only jazz luminaries as Monty Alexander and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, but with many northern European jazz artists. Berner has lived in the Netherlands since 1990, but "Open Country" sounds as if the place he’s dreaming about is the Great Plains of America.
Kurt Weill’s ‘My Ship’ is arranged in a very simple format in which the music speaks to open spaces and the nuances of the landscape details. It is a beautiful, reflective piece. You can almost feel the wispy breeze and the sway of the tall grass. Berner’s own ‘Omaha’ touches a more ominous tone of a small city noir. Corn-fed crooks on the make? Local pharmacists brewing their own concoction? Confederate Christians plotting? This might be counterbalanced by the innate gorgeousness and righteousness of American traditional, ‘Amazing Grace.’ Anchored by Berner, this spiritual is played with affection and serious respect. By comparison, old, familiar ‘Ramblin’ Rose’ feels more mundane; a wistful romp about a fading and endangered place like an independently-run breakfast joint or drugstore or grocery.
The album concludes with two complementary pieces. ‘Heartland’ has a sweet, quiet reverence for the spaces that Berner perhaps remembers and his European compadres can only imagine. Interestingly, the finale is Duke Ellington’s ‘In My Solitude.’ Berner and band transform the original mood of urban alienation into a seemingly rural piece of affirmation.
"Open Country" is an accomplishment. It is subtle, slow with complex emotion of a place that Berner must have mixed feelings. You might not be able to go home again but you can certainly dream and muse about it.