Josh Berman’s belated debut for Delmark was titled Old Idea, despite being made up of only new tunes. Even the headiest of pursuits finds the cornetist asserting his wry sense of humor. A charter member of the Umbrella Music collective, Berman continues to be a linchpin of the local scene, co-curating the Hungry Brain’s Sunday Transmission Series and performing often at any one of the city’s several incubators for free-improv talents, his classy aesthetic mirrored by his always-natty threads.
We’ve been waiting for an album from His Gang for a while. The group, which started up in 2007 with the goal of reimagining Chicago-style tunes of ’20s West Siders the Austin High Gang, has blossomed into an octet with its own unique agenda, bringing members’ avant-garde tilt to tunes penned nearly a century ago. It takes a versatile cast to carry that out and Berman’s group is top-notch, including clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio, bass clarinetist Jason Stein, tenor saxist Keefe Jackson and trombonist Jeb Bishop, whose appearances around town are something to savor now that the longtime Chicagoan has relocated to his native North Carolina.
The new, perfectly titled There Now is the 39-year-old’s strongest statement yet as a leader, affirming his gift as an arranger and composer, featuring relatively obscure Austin High standbys like “Liza,” where a lively, Dixieland head detours into a cacophonous swirl of untethered textures topped by Berman’s spiralling horn. A deeply embedded ensemble spirit centers Berman originals including the easy-swinging “Mobile and Blues” and the reflective “One Train May Hide Another,” a vehicle for Jason Adasiewicz’s luminescent vibraphone playing. Hardly a compromise of two schools, instead it encapsulates everything we love about Berman’s ideas, old and new.