Luke Bergman: Making Music Tangible

Originally published in Earshot Jazz April 2013

Sunday night at Café Racer. Rows of empty chairs line the room. CDs cover a table. Regulars perch at the bar. A crowd appears at the stroke of 8:00 and chairs fill with listeners. The announcer introduces musicians and guidelines for the jam session to follow. Bathed in green light, performers channel melodies and rhythms that swirl like the ceiling fan above the stage.

In the front row of the audience sits Luke Bergman, eyes closed, nodding with the musical energy, twisting his short beard between thumb and index finger. He is one of ten organizers behind the weekly Racer Sessions that grew out of Cuong Vu’s free improvisation ensembles at the University of Washington. Bergman calls the Racer Sessions “a platform for any possibility.”

Vu pushed Bergman and the other session organizers to reach beyond improvisation and record the events, to make the music tangible. They assembled a record label, Tables and Chairs, to document the music, post it online and create CDs for sale. Café Racer kicked in a percentage of the bar receipts to cover expenses. The result is the shortest production line possible. Music is created, recorded and sold in the same location. Bergman is responsible for most of the recording, mixing and editing.

Sound engineering is a skill Bergman developed during his musical career through overdubbing his instruments. Composing and orchestrating by layering recorded sounds can be a slow and solitary pursuit. Some of Bergman’s earlier work is on public display at These songs for Heatwarmer reveal a technical precision that uses a wide sonic pallet reminiscent of Frank Zappa.

Bergman was born September 24, 1984 in Pullman, Washington. He grew up in Ellensburg, started guitar in sixth grade, studied with Troy Moore and played in the school jazz band. When Bergman enrolled in the Jazz Studies program at UW, Moore asked Bergman to teach at his new store in Sammamish. On campus, Bergman witnessed a high level of craft and discipline. “Hearing my peers play and communicate without words was indicative of a vast amount of learning.”

Bergman studied recordings of the 1960’s John Coltrane quartet at UW and admired the deep rapport between the musicians. The extreme talent, technique and togetherness produced music that “still sounds new and fresh today.” On the technical front, Bergman took bass lessons first from Doug Miller, then Phil Sparks.

After graduation, Bergman collaborated closely with guitarist Kristian Garrard. The two created a guitar/singing duo called Thousands. They recorded in various locations throughout the Northwest to create The Sound of Everything. “Luke has the best musical instincts of anyone I know,” says Garrard. “He's a very careful player, and knows how to fit into any situation, while simultaneously knowing how and when to drive songs in new and exciting directions. You can trust him to do something amazing with any song.”

Bergman and Garrard teamed up for the current version of Heatwarmer with keyboardist Aaron Otheim, drummer Evan Woodle and Andrew Swanson on electronic wind instrument (EWI), saxophone and keyboards. A new recording with ten Bergman originals will be out this summer.

The duo of Bergman and Garrard is also a part of King Tears Bat Trip, a mashup of Hatian drumming with distorted saxophone and guitar. The self-titled release last year included saxophonist Neil Welch, drummers Thomas Campbell, Chris Icasiano and Evan Woodle, plus Brandon Lucia on chango.

Bergman has maintained his connection with trumpeter Cuong Vu, playing on and mixing Vu’s 4-tet release Leap of Faith with drummer Ted Poor and bassist Stomu Takeishi. Another collaboration with Vu called Agogic features drummer Evan Woodle and saxophonist Andrew d’Angelo. Their self-titled CD will be re-released on vinyl this year. Vu says of Bergman, “His incredible musicality comes from being grounded, extremely wise, DEEPLY knowledgeable about a wide range of music, unafraid of taking risks, naturally supportive, honest, and unpretentious.” Woodle admires Bergman’s impact on audiences. “Luke has an amazing ability to create things that simultaneously move people and make people move. The fact that his music is often quite complicated and dense makes this attribute even more remarkable to me.”

One of Bergman’s biggest upcoming projects will bring saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell from Chicago to the Nordstrom Recital Hall on June 7. Mitchell and several Tables and Chairs ensembles will perform versions of the saxophonist’s career-long composition “Nonaah.”

Meanwhile, back at Café Racer, Bergman listens intently to several combinations of musicians improvise before taking the stage himself. While a trumpet, saxophone and keyboard explore a tonal center, Bergman contributes some distantly related notes on electric bass and ends the piece with some strummed minor to major seventh chords reminiscent of the jazz standard “Nardis.” Kristian Garrard sums up Bergman’s dedication. “He always seems to have time to make it out, and is always willing to play with any new-comers, making them feel welcome into what could otherwise be an intimidating scene.”

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