Other Johnny-come-latelies to recording include Joe Maneri and Kidd Jordan. When I ask him at what point he became a full -time musician, however, Bergman questions the very concept. '"Full-time musician ' can be a ' romantic' term," he scoffs. " [In the 60s and 70s]l was teaching music in schools and playing also . Isn 't that a full-time musician? Composers have to teach, except possibly a dozen or so in the world , and I don't mean those who do pop music or write commercially for film or theatre . In Britain , I notice a basic insecurity about what is taken for granted in the USA. Everything has to be explained and 'proven ' in terms of a career in the 'jazz, etcetera ' music scene ."
Away from the public gaze Bergman was developing the ambidextrous concept of " ambi-ideation " as a key element of his purposeful awkwardness. For some time , he composed and improvised entirely for the left hand. " I really developed i t, i t 's almost as good as my right , maybe better," he boasts , " so I can play a lot of polyphony without losing the swing. When I was about 19, I had this dream of a boy reach ing for a star with his left hand ." He was very influenced by pianist Paul Wittgenstein , for whom Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto For The Left Hand, but he also credits his parents ' leftwing influence as another reason for his even-handed take on music. The pianist practises obsessively- the opposite of Paul Bley, who claims he doesn 't practise at all. "Well , first of all Bley's style is very spare, " Bergman retorts. " He may have practised at one time. I'm not sure I believe he doesn 't practise . He may get away with i t but as for myself.. . l t depends on how you play the piano. He has certain ideas he wants to use , he doesn't have to work hard , maybe he doesn't want to go any further. For me, to develop the left hand was not a simple matter ... Teddy Wilson told me not to practise more than three hours a day." Does he exceed that? "You bet ," he fires back. " Sometimes I practise lying down . I have one of these little pianos , a clavier, I cut i t down. I can walk around practising in the park. " Indeed, in Leeds he carried a shoulder bag containing a cut-down dummy keyboard.
Classical pianists practise holding down one note while playing others, applying strength through the fingers not the arm. But Bergman has made a melodic and compositional device of this exercise. " I thought why not improvise doing that?" he argues . "So I'd hold the third finger down while improvising with the others . l t sets a l imit- you can 't go too many places. You don't have to play the note, you can depress i t silently. . . You get these circular phrases almost automatically, creating a web-like feeling in my playing when I play fast. " Now he plays holding the thumb down too- all in the interests of purposeful awkwardness .
Before the 90s , Bergman always recorded solo . He began recording more frequently when he turned to the duo or trio format , amassing 24 albums in the last decade, none of them deploying the conventional jazz line-up of piano, bass and drums. "I did a number of duos ," Bergman recounts, "with Evan Parker, Oliver Lake . The record with Oliver Lake, for some reason, people liked . Evan's an interesting guy. That record- i t was from 1990 - I made in my apartment . I'm pushing him around on purpose . Not to insult him in any way. Evan likes jazz, no doubt about it. If he hears Dinah Washington , he'll pass out on the chair. "
In Leeds Bergman worked very effectively with Lol Coxhill, who like himself comes from the bebop generation. He has recorded two duo albums with Roscoe Mitchell. " He was a difficult guy to deal with, we had our ups and downs," he lets slip. But then Bergman thrives on antagonism, provoking and 30 THE WIRE
needling his partners , while connecting best with drummers , and passionate saxophonists such as Lake and Thomas Chapin . But even in company he is essentially a solo pianist.
The frequent comparisons with his better known contemporary Cecil Taylor clearly rankles Bergman , who goes to some length to put some distance between their respective styles. Both are high energy pianists and technically stupendous - and they're essentially solo players who tend not to pick up ideas from their partners. But still they ' re poles apart. Concerned with flexibility, extension , gracefulness , Taylor's pianism is more traditional than Bergman ' s counterintuitive concept, which aims to short-circuit muscular memory. They cite bebop master Bud Powell 's intense , driven ferocity. But Taylor's rhythmic sense comes more from Ellington and Monk, as well as classical styles especially Bartok and Stravinsky. In Bergman 's case , Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane have been stronger influences, though he never played with either. "Ornette and Cecil don't have much in common rhythmically at all ," Bergman notes. "And while even now I'm thinking [chord] changes a lot, Cecil is monochromatic, he doesn 't move much around in harmony. He ' s the only pianist who could get away with what he does. He phrases on the beat, he doesn't syncopate, he doesn 't use accents . I'm not sure he swings at all, after his early days. Maybe he swings in his own way. But who cares whether he swings or not, i f he's got something that's his own .
"People say I've been influenced by Taylor but I don't think so," reiterates Bergman. " But I can see that there is that thing in my playing that comes from a similar approach to learning how to play. Because I learned late , and I used to try to play faster than Bud Powell. Cecil's playing didn 't influence me but his presence did - because he was doing his own thing and saying , Fuck you, i f you don 't like it , shove it! I think [saxophonist] Jimmy Lyons had a strong influence on Cecil, because his earlier playing with Steve Lacy was quite different. His real voice appeared from the late 60s, and i t 's very European. When you hear Cecil, you hear the phrase before he plays i t and Germans like that.
"The Chicago musicians, the ones who played with Roscoe Mitchell, are also very European-oriented ," he continues. "That doesn 't mean they ' re not playing jazz or the blues , but their phrasing is disjointed - that comes from Stockhausen and others. And Chicago is the free music capital of America. " Another Europeanoriented player, he argues, is Anthony Braxton , with whom he recorded in 1997. " Braxton could be a fabulous pianist, " he claims. " No one else thinks so , but i f he had three or four years to work at it, I reckon he would be one of the greats. There's no tone on the piano - and that ' s what people get after him for. Braxton has got a lot of classical stuff in his playing [Bergman sings an atonal-sounding phrase]. The same with the English free improvisers . Incidentally I would never consider Bill Evans as having a classical touch - i t was his own touch, good for the music he wanted to play."
References to Stockhausen , Xenakis , Boulez, Cage and Nancarrow pepper Bergman's conversation . He worked with Belgian avant garde composer Henri Pousseur in the mid-80s, and has made a recording of John Cage's piano music. " I used to practise singing along with Stockhausen 's music and keeping the afterbeat with my fingers, making i t swing," Bergman explains . " Not that I use those phrases any more. In my fast playing , you hear the buoyancy, and people would say, Nancarrow! But I was doing that before I heard Conlon Nancarrow, and he got i t from the same place as me , pre-1940 Chicago jazz."
Bergman bridles when I describe him as a free player. " I'm not a free player! " he contests. " Is Sam Rivers a free player? Was Coltrane a free player? I know the harmonic changes . You want "Sweet Lorraine " or any of those tunes , I'll do it. But I figured I wanted to make my own changes, my own harmonies. The free era was not good for pianists. You can't carry a piano around into some little club that doesn 't have one - and there were no pianos. Now they ' re coming back a little bit . I have played electric organ and stuff like that in the 70s . But I stopped. There 's something about the piano as a physical instrument. " Whatever you make of the 'free' label, Borah Bergman is no longer the wild man of free jazz piano. "This gene inside me that pushes me to these tempos and wild ideas , I'm not sure about i t," he says uncertainly. His new Tzadik disc Meditations For Piano showcases Bergman in reflective mood , a side he's shown incompletely in the past. "John [Zorn] would call , 'Play slow ', from the control room ," he recalls. "At one time I remember him saying, 'Play slow for 20 minutes! ' I also did uptempo but John decided to just use the slow stuff." Zorn wants his musicians to explore the Jewish heritage they may have neglected or denied, but Bergman's was never far from the surface. The Jewish-inflected falling figures that open Upside Down Visions are a haunting Bergman trademark, repeated between the densely note-packed improvisations. The same plangency is found in Meditations For Piano, dedicated to his grandfather, Cantor Joseph Meir Pergamenick. This is music by someone who has had great sadness in their life , but instead of casting out the " rocks " , as he puts it, Bergman has moulded them to his own purposes.
"John does more composing now, what he considers as 'serious ' ," Bergman adds . "He says, 'Borah, I don 't have too much time now [for playing]. I'm composing ' with a capital C." Bergman is a little sceptical about this priority: "Now I 'm not being egotistical , but i f I wanted to write a string quartet I could do so. i t 's no big deal once you know harmony, theory, the instruments . I 've written a lot of tunes and heads , and I'd like to write. But I don 't think there are composers any greater than John Coltrane ."
As i f making up for the missing years, Bergman is a more prolific recording artist today. A duo with the late Thomas Chapin is forthcoming on Boxholder. "He was in chemotherapy when we did it. I hear a certain desperation in his playing ," Bergman comments . Future projects include a duo with Norwegian alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, and a tribute to Lennie Tristano. But no matter how many discs he releases , the inherent difficulty of Bergman's music will always l imit its appeal, however much he rails against this. "You said my music was difficult but why shouldn 't i t be difficult? " he argues . "That 's one of the problems with the scene . I'm not trying to be difficult, and I can be very simple. But the music isn't really taken seriously- i t has to be easy. After a hard day's work you come home, you don 't want more problems. There are people who ignore me, because I don't f i t the demographics , and I don't hang out, and I don't make the polls. But there are people who do know of me. And now I'm in a different situation. I mean I'm good . I'm not being egotistical. I'm not saying I'm a genius but I've really developed ." 0 Meditations For Piano is out now on Tzadik. Thanks to Gi/es Quinnell, Bill Shoemaker, Brian Coleman and Paul Hessian