Jazz pianist Borah Bergman died the same day as David Ware, but as he was a more obscure figure known mostly to hardcore devotees of the avant-garde, the news traveled more slowly. Famous or not, his talents and imagination were prodigious, as his peers knew. John Zorn called him "one of the greatest pianists of our time," and Peter Brötzmann declared, "Borah Bergman was my favorite pianist. One of the few pianists who can work with me at all." Chris Kelsey, both a saxophonist and a critic, proclaimed him "perhaps the most technically accomplished pianist in jazz -- and if he's not at the top, then he's certainly on a short list of two."
One of the things that us critics do, of course, is make comparisons, but there were no valid comparisons for this unique player, who created a stunningly distinctive technique unlike that of any other jazz pianist by working, with obsessive dedication, to not only make his left hand as dexterous (pun intended) as his right, but to then interchange their roles with frequent cross-hand passages -- one of his albums was aptly entitled Upside Down Visions.
That 1984 recording, his fourth, was issued by the Italian label Soul Note, for which I worked in the following decade, at which point I got to know Bergman. He was quite a character, very friendly and talkative, and I had the pleasure of hanging out at his cozy, cluttered, piano-centric Manhattan apartment after delivering his complimentary copies of new CDs. He was always eager to talk about his art, with a charmingly brazen yet witty approach to self-promotion, including a love of provocative statements, that I always felt reflected his Brooklyn roots.
While he clearly had no doubts regarding the distinctiveness of what he did, he seemed at a loss as to how he could get more people to hear it short of his own word of mouth. Fortunately, the owners of Soul Note, Giovanni Bonandrini and later his son Flavio, were equally convinced, and documented his art more than any other labels, first with two solo albums in the '80s and then with a remarkable series of five duo albums in the '90s plus a trio with Brötzmann.
Born in Brooklyn, Bergman cut his musical teeth as a clarinetist and didn't take piano seriously until his mid-twenties. That's as good an explanation as any for the late start of his recording career. Without a birth certificate in hand, it's hard to say just how late -- his DOB is given variously as 1926 or 1933 -- but his first album was recorded in 1975, when he was either 42 or 49. Growing up or coming of age during the bebop era led to his early inspirations being Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano, but it was the onslaught of a saxophonist -- John Coltrane's "Chasin' the Trane" -- that left its deepest mark on him: Coltrane's combination of speed, intensity, and endurance set the standard he aspired to. The desire to be able to do anything with his left hand that he could with his right was somewhat related to this desire for a big sound; Bergman wanted to be able to improvise counterpoint with absolute freedom, including the freedom from technical restrictions making one part less active.
That encounter with the music of Coltrane put Bergman on a quest to make as much noise as possible. Think I'm exaggerating? In what for many years was the only available extensive interview with Bergman, a 1987 article by Francis Davis eventually anthologized in Davis's book Outcats, Bergman quoted an early collaborator (an unnamed drummer) as saying, "Borah, the thing you do best is make tumult." And when Bergman finally got the opportunity to record, for the Chiaroscuro label in 1975 (he noted that his session followed on the heels of an Earl Hines session), side one of his debut, Discovery, was a single track, "Perpetual Springs," that's an 18-minute free improvisation for piano four hands, with Bergman overdubbing himself in a ferocious attack on jazz conventions (especially those of free jazz) and listeners' ears. One of the two tracks on side two is "normal," but the other is for left hand alone, not that anybody would guess that given its hyperactivity. On his follow-up the next year, Bursts of Joy, all of side two is pieces for just the left hand. Both of these Chiaroscuro LPs have long been out of print, alas.
Recording-wise, that was the last that was heard from him for seven years. In the interim, he supported himself as a teacher (which he continued to do for several decades). Then came the pivotal moment in his professional career. An Italian critic and concert promoter, Arrigo Polillo, heard the Chiaroscuro LPs and booked him for some concerts; while Bergman was in Italy, Polillo introduced him to Giovanni Bonandrini, resulting in the two 1980s albums on Soul Note that are the purest examples of Bergman's solo piano.
A New Frontier (Soul Note, recorded 1/83), the first of them, remains a stunning monument of pianistic imagination and energy, though with enough variety of mood to not be exhausting. It was felt necessary, whether because of his self-duet on Discovery or just because the speed and density of his playing beggared belief, to include a note: "No use is made of multitracking, overdubbing or tape speeding on any selection." The track "Webs & Whirlpools," which closes the album, tended to be particularly remarked on.
Upside Down Visions (Soul Note, 7/24-25 & 10/2-3/84) features a title track that's another excellent example of Bergman's prototypical style, with the left hand playing cross-handed above the right hand. However, his style was still evolving, and some of the album's other tracks find Bergman exploring balladry, to surprisingly good effect; his melodies, given some breathing room, are haunting.
Then, as though he had gone as far as he could with solo albums (whether musically or promotionally speaking), after a six-year break he switched gears. Six of his first seven recordings of the '90s, four of them on Soul Note, were duos (with one partial exception):
The Fire Tale (Soul Note, 3/18-20/90) with saxophonist Evan Parker, who's pretty much to saxophones what Bergman is to the piano, a guy with superb technique who likes to fill in all the spaces but does so quite compellingly. Balls to the wall awesomeness abounds.
Inversions (Muworks, 3/30/92) duo with saxophonist Thomas Chapin's name first. It's good but not great; they don't always seem entirely in sync conceptually.
The Human Factor (Soul Note, 6/29-30/92) with drummer Andrew Cyrille, a perfect match, highly recommended.
First Meeting (Knitting Factory, 1/19/94) with saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, plus vocalist Thomas Buckner joins on the final piece, a three-section suite. The least of Bergman's recordings. Thomas Buckner's mannered avant vocals, even though present on just 14 minutes, are a turnoff for me, and I'm not wild about the Mitchell/Bergman combination either, which is a little monochromatic.
Italian Concert (Soul Note, 1/3 studio 12/19/94, 2/3 concert 6/30/95) with Mitchell, their second meeting going better.
Reflections on Ornette Coleman and the Stone House (Soul Note, 3/23/95 concert) with drummer Hamid Drake is my favorite of the duos. The title comes from five of its six tracks being Ornette tunes ("Lonely Woman," "Peace," "Congeniality," and two takes on "Focus on Sanity") being complemented by Bergman’s favorite original, "The Stone House." The Ornette themes appear as heads, harmonically reconfigured, and then give way to excursive if not unrelated improvisations in a bold reimagining of a seminal jazz legacy.
There are only two recordings of Bergman in a quartet. Best is The October Revolution (Evidence, 10/22/94), a concert celebrating the Bill Dixon-organized October Revolution concerts that took place 30 years before. Bergman, saxophonist/flugelhornist Joe McPhee, drummer Rashied Ali, and bassist Wilber Morris improvise two long freeform dedications to Dixon, energetic and imaginative. McPhee stars, but on the contemplative second improvisation, quietly intense McPhee/Bergman duo passages are particularly riveting. The other quartet is led by Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, with trumpeter Bobby Bradford and drummer Pheeroan akLaff: Ikosa Mura (Cadence, 1997), which I haven't heard.
In fact, all of Bergman's 1990s recordings were collaborations; in '95 he added trios to the mix.
Ride into the Blue (Konnex, 4/19/95 concert) with saxophonists Thomas Borgmann and Peter Brötzmann, an energetic thrill ride.
Eight by Three (Mixtery, 4/96) with saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Brötzmann; Braxton fits in better than one might expect, and this is excellent.
Blue Zoo (Konnex, 6/9/96 concert) with Borgmann and Brötzmann again, lacking none of the excitement they'd generated the first time.
Exhilaration (Soul Note, 9/23/96 & 1/17/97 concerts) with Brötzmann and Cyrille is my favorite of the trios with Brötzmann, partly because the instrumental combination is clearer, mostly because Cyrille is a master drummer.
Toronto 1997 (Boxholder, 6/26/97 concert) with Chapin. His second duo with Chapin, who was not long for this world (he was suffering from leukemia) is poignant, and Bergman's stylistic evolution had made him a better complement to Chapin's lyricism than on their first recording.
A New Organization (Soul Note, 7/8/97 concert) with saxophonist Oliver Lake. The free-ranging duet improvisations with Lake (of the World Saxophone Quartet) found the pianist including more moments of spareness and delicacy. The versatile Lake made an ideal partner at this point in Bergman's development. This session is as stimulating and interactive as ever, but Bergman's new-found embrace of variety and space in his music makes it his most immediately appealing work yet.
My collection lacks a 1996 duet with saxophonist Ivo Perelman, Geometry (Leo), which could be good.
In the last decade of his career, I missed a few more. For one, a trio with saxophonist Lol Coxhill and drummer Paul Hession, Acts of Love (Mutable, 2005), that I've got to track down, especially since the album Bergman and Hession made with saxophonist George Haslam, The Mahout (SLAM, 2004), is good. For another, The Double Idea (Boxholder, 2002), which might be a solo album, since I can't find credits for it anywhere (my research is so top-notch).
The River of Sounds (Boxholder, 5/29/00) with trombonist Conny Bauer and violinist/violist Mat Maneri has its moments, but Maneri is a bit overpowered.
Rivers in Time (FMR, 3/1/02 & 10/25/02) with Frode Gjerstad is another example of Bergman teaming well with a saxophonist.
Meditations for Piano (Tzadik, 2/03) is his last solo album; as its title indicates, the fires are damped here in favor of a quiet approach that finds him mulling over various motifs, a few sounding like some of his old ballads.
Live at Tortona (Mutable, 7/1/07 concert) with violinist Stefano Pastor disappoints due to Pastor's painful metallic tone and improvising skills far below Bergman's. There's also a mildly annoying electronic hum. It is interesting to hear Bergman play chordally on his solo ballad, "When Autumn Comes," but even that track is marred by an unintended duet when church bells start tolling near the end.
One More Time (Silta, 7/5/07) with bassist Giorgio Dini. Bergman's only duo with a bassist goes well; with the pianist's stylistic evolution to a less dense sound, and with Dini wielding his bow effectively, the players are able to share the sonic spotlight as equals.
Luminescence (Tzadik, 9/30/08), Bergman's last album, was his first in the standard trio lineup of piano/bass/drums, with Greg Cohen and Kenny Wollesen; on one track, their boss (and Tzadik owner) John Zorn sits in on alto sax. Even when Zorn joins (he's relatively restrained), it's an autumnal session that finds Cohen's throbbing lines pushing the music while Bergman ruminates quietly on melodies with a pronounced Hebraic tinge. Though he's quieter, as he had been on his previous Tzadik album, his love of contrary motion still puts his stamp on the music. Though not representative of his trademark style, it's an emotionally potent valedictory release.
The only obituary I've seen so far for Bergman (in German by, I'm guessing, a Swiss critic) says the pianist had been living in a nursing home and died of dementia. He had managed public performances as late as 2010, however, and if he was born in 1926, was still playing in his 80s. His longevity made up for his late start; his 35-year recording career (a 2010 concert was filmed for a documentary) lasted longer than the recording careers of Tristano, Powell, or Coltrane. -Steve Holtje
Photo by Peter Gannushkin
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, editor, and music critic. A few sentences of this obituary are taken from his entry on Bergman in MusicHoundJazz: The Essential Album Guide (Visible Ink/Gale Press).