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David Berkman : CACP 10 Questions

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, pianist David Berkman has been a vital part of the NYC scene for 20 years. He has worked with Tom Harrell, Cecil McBee, Sonny Stitt, Hank Crawford, Joe Lovano, Matt Wilson, and countless others. We sat down after a quartet date at Luna presented by the Center for Artistic Collaboration and Performance (CACP), and David Berkman was as gentlemanly answering questions as he was leading his group, with whom he shares the stage on completely equal terms, letting everyone shine. They did, indeed.

Interview conducted and edited by Mark Patel, February 17, 2005.

1) What have you been listening to lately?

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Brazilian music, Rosa Passos and a great guitarist named Guinga, and I’m probably just massacring his name. I’ve been listening to my iPod on shuffle. I’ll tell you what I heard today, Dave Douglas from New and Used, which is a favorite record of mine, Souvenir is the name of the record, New and Used is the band, and then Bud Powell right after. That’s the amazing thing about that iPod shuffle, you get like Duke, Bud, then you get like Ascension. When I put things on, I’ve been listening to a lot of Brazilian music, but then on shuffle mode, I’m listening to everything I’ve ever heard, which is kind of fun.

2) What is your most memorable live performance?

Wow, there are so many that are memorable in so many different ways that it’s kind of hard. I’ll tell you one that just comes to mind immediately off the top of my head. I was playing at the Knitting Factory in New York, it was a festival with Tom Harrell, Ray Drummond, Billy Hart, and Don Braden. It was Tom Harrell’s band. One thing that really struck me about that date was we had rehearsed with a different drummer and had played a little, just barely with Billy Hart, and from the down beat Billy Hart was just like—it was the first time I played a gig with him—and it was just such a ferocious and intense experience, and I remember just feeling pulled out of myself the whole time. Maybe another time was when I was 20 I was in a house band in Cleveland, and I played with Sonny Stitt for four nights, and that was a pretty incredible experience. So, those are two that stick out.

3) What is your most memorable concert-going experience?

Wow, again most memorable is so hard. When I was in high school I saw the Keith Jarrett Band, with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden and Dewey Redman. That was incredibly memorable. Another one that I was just actually thinking about was I saw the Master Musicians of Joujouka, they’re from Morocco and just this incredible, it just sounds like a village. One other one, actually, that is a really memorable one, it wasn’t actually a concert, but I was just in Brazil and I went to hear a Samba school practice, so 150 drummers and people singing and playing all the Samba stuff, and I was sort of lucky because I was there not long before Carnival. They rehearse all year long, you know, and just to see 80 people singing the song, two tiny ukulele guitars, and 150 drummers.

4) Who is the one musician with which you would most like to play?

These are such hard questions. One, you only get one, huh? I’ll take Paul Motian. I think some of the musicians I enjoy playing with the most are the ones who when you play with them it recasts everything. That was a little bit like the experience with Billy Hart, it almost doesn’t sound like music as you know it.

5) Who is your biggest non-musical influence?

Probably my father. He was an amateur piano player and a lawyer.

6) What is your first musical memory?

Oh, that’s easy. When I was about three years old, I had one of those little tiny close and play record players, and my father gave me a record that had this really funny cover with all these geometric shapes on it. I used to put it on, and it would just be like (makes some nonsense sounds), I just thought it was pure chaos. I would just put it on and just laugh and laugh and laugh. I found out later it was Dizzy Gillespie. To me it just sounded like pure nothing. I think a lot of time you read interviews with people saying, “Oh man, the first time I heard Monk...” The first time I heard that stuff I didn’t get it at all, you know, but it was interesting because I know that’s who it was and trying to think back to how it felt at the time, it was just like outer space.

7) When did you know that you wanted to be an improvising musician?

You know, I was always improvising. I started very early with some jazz players in town. I would always go back and forth between classical music and jazz and classical music and jazz. I was never that solid in classical music; I always went back to it and I worked on it, and over the years I got a lot out of studying it. I remember when I was about twelve; I was studying with a classical teacher. I had already been with a jazz teacher for a little bit, and I went back and was working with a classical teacher. She had a recital and she asked us, “Who here is thinking of being a professional musician?”, and I raised my hand, and she just looked at me and said, “You!”, you know, you’ve got to be kidding. I was never very comfortable in that world. Later on when I was studying classical music, I would sometimes transcribe the pieces from recordings because for me all the notes, the page, made it hard to get in touch with the music. So from a very early age I kind of looked at music as not written down on the page.

8) What is your ultimate goal as an artist?

Over time it seems like you get defined by what you have done. The best thing that I ever heard anyone say about it, somebody asked Duke Ellington what his favorite tune he ever wrote was, and he said the next one. To have that kind of attitude, and Duke Ellington is in a way sort of the role model for that, for going all the way from the music that he played in the 30s, or before actually, to the music that he played in the late 60s. Such an incredible odyssey and such a growing, changing person. That’s the kind of thing you hope for, for that kind of mastery of yourself in that sense that you get to keep putting forth music that is interesting and vital and that interests you.

9) If music was banned tomorrow, what would you do?

Something where you don’t have to practice so much [laughs]. You know, I would say I would do something easier, or something that’s not so creative or not so about that stuff, but actually I always did creative things. I used to draw; I really liked drawing cartoons when I was younger. I went to college to be a writer. I’m sure I would always be doing something where you make stuff, but sometimes it seems like it would be nice to get a rest from that kind of life and do something that’s a little more... you show up, you work, you get paid, that kind of thing, instead of quite the freelancing life that we all have. It would be nice to do something also where you are involved with people in a simpler way, you know, the artist and the audience and all that kind of stuff is sort of complicated. Sometimes I think that people that are in that more straight world have more simpler, mediated relationships. I mean that from the outside that’s how it seems, everyone’s on the same schedule and they’re not on the road constantly.

10) Can music save people, and if so, how?

Music is one of the things... I mean, I have no sense that music will heal everything that’s wrong in the world and all that kind of stuff. A lot of people have that sort of vision of music, and I think that’s great if it does. I think that music is one of the positive things that people do. I have been traveling a lot in Europe after 9/11 and then after the Iraq War, and after Afghanistan and all that stuff, and so much of the rest of the world knows America as the product of, you know, as this administration and the kind of role that America has been assuming in the world; this huge power and a government that the rest of the world just can’t relate to at all. I always think that what I’m bringing when I go play in those other countries is, well, this is American, too, this is something that comes from the United States, it’s jazz, it’s improvised music. I think that music is something that speaks to the positive impulses that people have, and at a time when there is as much negativity and torture and horror, I mean, we have a government that thinks torture is OK, you know, it’s kind of like, well, going and playing the blues or playing a tune is a nice reminder that there are other aspects of American culture than what’s being put out there.