A Biography by Jonathan Widran
In the beginning, when God was creating the heavens and the earth, He was no doubt already looking ahead a few eons, choosing Mark Berman to bring the poetic musings of the Ancient Hebrews to glorious contemporary musical life. “Let There Be Jazz,” God said, and the veteran New York based pianist and conductor set to work on The Genesis Project, his own bold and ambitious, jazz driven creation that takes the listener on an extraordinary, interpretive journey through the first chapter of the Bible.
Leading an ensemble of some of NYC’s most acclaimed singers and musicians, Berman—the project’s composer, arranger and producer—draws from his years as a versatile sideman and Broadway conductor to blend dynamic elements of rock, funk, R&B, gospel, samba, blues and other fascinating musical idioms in tight five part vocal harmony. Opening with an eloquent, harmonica-laced prologue and wrapping with a simmering blues-gospel flavored prayer for “Peace,” Berman’s debut as an artist explores the beautiful spirituality of the Judeo-Christian tradition while addressing humanity’s urgent need to rethink our sacred connections to the earth and one another. The tracks were recorded at Bennett Studios, Track 9 and Pilot Recording and mixed at the world famous Manhattan Center Studios.
Berman, who sees The Genesis Project as the culmination of 35 years of his life, wrote the original versions of “In The Beginning,” “Let There Be Light” and “Let Land Appear” for a Friday night service back when he was 15 and a member of the youth group at Temple Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Connecticut. A few years ago, his brother Barry—still an active member there—approached the musician and asked if he might want to reprise “Genesis” for the congregation’s 165th Anniversary. Excited about the opportunity, Berman’s initial goal was to complete all seven days.
As the project evolved into a full-scale vocal jazz recording with his favorite players from years living in Manhattan, Berman’s commitment to what ultimately became The Genesis Project came from thinking globally. It was as if it took a truly responsible adult citizen of the world to bring to creative fruition a work that began years ago as a simple childhood flight of fancy. In turn, the tension between ancient innocence and the harsher reality that’s taken its place is a theme that carries through the 14 tracks. Berman frames the project through the point of view of a young protagonist who comes of age along the journey through the creation and opens his or her eyes for the first time to embrace a world of infinite value. A deep awareness takes place through the process towards “Peace,” and ultimately, there’s no going back.
“I feel that The Genesis Project is very timely,” he says. “The world is being abused and its health ignored. We are all part of this great small blue planet. The idea of caring about it and each other, rather than constantly being at odds and mistreating the earth and its people, was a great catalyst for me. Words and actions are very powerful.
“We’ve got one beautiful, fragile planet,” Berman adds, “and its health and people need our attention. We need a call back to the planet, a call to harmony. Peace must be achieved and the earth and its living creatures need to be cherished. This is our planet’s natural state and our call must be heard. All of these frustrations I have with the state of things today made me think back to the innocence of Genesis 1. I believe in those days, the scribes of Ancient Israel weren’t the religious right banging out doctrine but part of a culture deeply aware of their spiritual connection to creation, much like the Native Americans.”
From the opening notes of the “Prologue,” Berman brings out these rich themes using a wide and colorful palette of musical styles. The jazzy R&B/gospel of “In The Beginning” draws familiar words straight from Genesis while invoking the “Spirit of God” like a healing mantra. “Let There Be Light” opens with Emily Bindinger’s beautiful solo vocal spot which is then joined by the full band; the song evokes the solitary space we occupy when we pray, hope or dream—moving effortlessly from the darkness. There are three short interludes, beginning with “Interlude 1” which features a four bar echo of the “Prologue” sung by La Tanya Hall. “Heaven” is just as we imagine it might be, a place where the party goes on all day and night, Ted Nash is blowing brilliant first takes on the sax and Berman is playing stride like he’s got all eternity.
After “Interlude 2” featuring more vocal magic by Bindinger, “Let The Land Appear” is a beautiful, energized jazz waltz with lyrics that start with the Bible texts and extend to modern, heartfelt ecological concerns. “Let The Land Approach Us” is a thoughtful, celebratory 12/8 piece with mantra-like words that introduce the ecological notion of “One planet, one people.” After “Interlude 3,” which features Bill Mitchell singing “Look into the open sky, a light falls on your heart,” “The Moon, The Stars” suddenly appear in a burst of bright and playful Brazilian samba that captures the energy of night and the end of a big day for the Universe. “Back To Earth” is Berman’s one solo piano piece on The Genesis Project, an eloquent expression that includes echoes of a jazz waltz and some gospel yearnings.
The creation of “Birds And Fish” inspires another free-flowing, swimming samba vibe that explores the playful joy of dolphins and other animals at play. The soothing mid tempo funk piece “Man And Woman” is a dance about the innocence of life before cynicism, cruelty and unrest entered the picture. And finally there’s the R&B flavored prayer for “Peace,” about which Berman says, “If listeners can feel a spirituality within themselves and learn to treasure their relationship to the planet and other people, mission accomplished!”
Mark Berman dedicates The Genesis Project to his dad, Arnold “Sonny Berman,” a well known trumpet player and big band leader who taught the young musician classics like “Moonglow” by playing notes on the horn which he would expect his son to then chord out on the piano. The younger Berman recalls some early piano pounding at age five, followed by a lifelong love of Miles Davis, Glenn Miller, Count Basie—you name it, he heard it from his dad and all the other musicians in the family. These included his cousin, another Sonny Berman, a star trumpeter with Woody Herman’s famed Thundering Herd. Great-uncle Harry Berman was the conductor of the New Haven Symphony and his cousin Bill Rhein was the youngest member of the New York Philharmonic.
A graduate of the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, Berman’s first major break came when he was asked to join the national and international tours of “Dreamgirls” by someone who had seen him play piano at a show some years earlier in Westport. Becoming a first call lead pianist upon moving to New York in the late 80s, Berman has written for, played and recorded with the proverbial who’s who of jazz, pop and rock. His fun to read resume reads like a history of modern music: Illinois Jacquet, Jackie McLean (one of his former teachers, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Wycliff Gordon, Mark Murphy, Betty Buckley, Hillary Cole, Houston Person, Nana Mouskouri, Petula Clark, Cornelius Bumpus, Leslie Gore, Gladys Knight, Hugh Jackman, Ben E King, Buster Poindexter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Richie Havens, Helen Reddy, Jennifer Holliday and Phil Ramone.
Berman, who has appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show and Rosie O’Donnell, has also been a powerful presence on Broadway, where he has conducted orchestras for Rent, Smokey Joe's Cafe and Blood Brothers and played lead piano on The Boy From Oz,Hairspray, The Life, 42nd Street, Dreamgirls, Rent and Jesus Christ Superstar. But he didn’t truly enter pop culture glory until he played piano on the world famous theme to “Sex And The City.”
Emerging from behind the scenes in recent years, Berman has performed at The Blue Note, Birdland, The Rainbow Room, The Supper Club, and Weill Hall. He officially released The Genesis Project at Birdland on October 30, 2007. The evening included a full performance of the album and featured many of its original players, including Ted Nash on sax, William Galison on harmonica, Cary Potts on bass, and Ray Marchica as a guest on drums.
“I feel like I learned so much about so many different forms of music growing up as my dad’s son,” Berman says. “The fact that I’ve been successful as a freelance musician has left me open to exploring many different styles of music, and it was exciting to bring so many of those together for The Genesis Project. Finally having accomplished my first solo project, I feel like I’m making a turn towards writing and producing more original music in the future.”
And God saw that it was good.