Adam Berenson lives in two worlds, musically speaking. He teaches both jazz and classical piano at Settlement, although most of his students are on the classical side currently.
In addition to his teaching, he’s very active as a composer, performer and improviser – so it might be more accurate to say that he lives in more than just two worlds. His interest in the avant-garde sides of both classical and jazz has led him to creating music that sounds improvised – full of dramatic shifts in tone and emotion – but which is actually composed.
At the extreme ends of the musical spectrums of classical and jazz, “everything blends into everything else,” he says. “Composed music is frozen improvisation, or slowed-down improvisation."
His jazz teaching tends to center around jazz standards and other standard repertoire. After years of having students plow through pieces haphazardly – “you can’t rely on the software that a student brings to a piece,” he says, “they feel like they can tell what comes next,” – Berenson came upon a method for teaching improvisation in a methodical, structured way.
“I physically cut the piece into strips,” he says, “and we work on just the first four bars.”
Once the student has demonstrated fluency in improvising and voicing chords, Berenson tapes the next four bars onto the chart, and progress continues.
Once a student has an entire chart mastered, Berenson often tries another unconventional method: he breaks out a ride cymbal and a set of brushes, and he provides some rhythm-section accompaniment as the student develop a feel for improvising.
Berenson likes to use the term “improvising artist” for his work that combines notated and improvised music. Some of that work has received some impressive accolades, including highly favorable reviews of the album “Lumen” in both Downbeat and Gramophone magazines, two publications with different following and areas of focus.
“That album was sort of like a business card,” he says, a way of opening doors and, in bridging the jazz-classical divide, bringing a built-in story with it.
On the heels of that success, he has several more recordings already completed – one of composed music, another entirely improvised, and yet another based on jazz standards – with their release in the works.
As if that weren’t enough musical activity, he’s working on two commissioned works as well, for Trio Arbus, a piano trio based in Spain and focused on cutting-edge contemporary music, and for the Fire Pink Trio, an ensemble of flute, viola and harp.
“I’ve never written two pieces at the same time,” he says, “and these two are very different creations.”
It’s enough to fill at least two different lives, or worlds, at the least.