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Artist Profiles

Peter Bernstein

By Published: December 26, 2009
Last month, Peter Bernstein
Peter Bernstein
Peter Bernstein
b.1967
guitar
arrived at Smalls, armed with his guitar and a small amp, to play an intimate solo gig. The crowd was a good one for an early evening set on a Wednesday and was bolstered by the presence of legendary trombonist Roswell Rudd
Roswell Rudd
Roswell Rudd
b.1935
trombone
. As the Yankees were winning the World Series a borough away, Bernstein was deciding tunes on the spot, running through pieces like "It Could Happen To You" and Monk numbers like "Light Blue" and "Coming on the Hudson" in firm, compact versions. Several young guitarists were in the audience, no doubt drinking in Bernstein's dry tone and playful stabs at dissonance and syncopation. The guitarist's demeanor was focused yet amused (though Bernstein claims more horror than amusement), as he, along with the rest of listeners, was appreciating the sounds he was creating.

Amazingly, this was only Bernstein's fourth ever solo gig, a new foray he began at the West Village club in July. "It's really just kind of an experiment," says Bernstein before a set at Smoke with organist Mike LeDonne
Mike LeDonne
Mike LeDonne
b.1956
piano
's quartet. "I thought maybe it would be a chance, in a low-key setting, to tackle that and get my feet wet. But I didn't realize that, even though it's an early show and it's Smalls and it's relatively informal and casual, it's a listening audience so it's more like a recital." It is hard to think that Bernstein, age 42, has something that he hasn't done in his already varied and compelling career. Having been part of the bands of seminal players like Lou Donaldson
Lou Donaldson
Lou Donaldson
b.1926
saxophone
, Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
b.1929
drums
and Dr. Lonnie Smith
Dr. Lonnie Smith
Dr. Lonnie Smith
b.1942
organ, Hammond B3
as well as those of peers like Larry Goldings
Larry Goldings
Larry Goldings
b.1968
keyboard
, Eric Alexander
Eric Alexander
Eric Alexander
b.1968
sax, tenor
and Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman
b.1969
saxophone
, Bernstein's discography is voluminous, starting with a dream participation in the 1990 concert album Jim Hall and Friends Live at Town Hall.

Since that date, done while he was still a student at the New School, Bernstein established himself both as a leader—seven albums, most for the Criss Cross label—and a desirable sideman. A listen to one of his recent appearances, Don Friedman
Don Friedman
Don Friedman
b.1935
piano
's Waltz for Marilyn (Jazz Excursion) or David "Fathead" Newman
David
David "Fathead" Newman
1933 - 2009
sax, tenor
's final recording The Blessing (HighNote) reveals a sensitive and adventurous player who, above all, always sounds like himself. This may seem like a truism but in Bernstein's case, it has driven his development. "To me it's never been a thing of trying to recreate something or try to play someone else's sound, play someone else's stuff," he says. "It's just trying to develop a relationship with the instrument that's personal and then just keep my ears open to whatever attracts me. And listening to non-guitar players has done so much for me, trying to emulate the phrasing of horn players or different people's harmonic conceptions regardless of their instrument because then you have to translate or adapt it and you have kind of an obstacle to deal with in terms of playing the instrument." In Bernstein's playing, one can hear the lessons he must have picked up growing up in New York and seeing concerts by such players as Hall and Joe Pass
Joe Pass
Joe Pass
1929 - 1994
guitar
(his first ever real jazz show and, to show that things come full circle, a solo performance) or listening to guitarists as diverse as Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
1916 - 1942
guitar, electric
and Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
to John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
b.1942
guitar
and first love Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
. "The players that seemed to have a more personal sound," observes Bernstein, "they just played the instrument, like Jim Hall
Jim Hall
Jim Hall
1930 - 2013
guitar
or Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
b.1931
guitar
or Grant Green
Grant Green
Grant Green
1935 - 1979
guitar
, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Raney
Jimmy Raney
Jimmy Raney
1927 - 1995
guitar, electric
, it was their touch that really made their sound."

For those that like to oversimplify or categorize their jazz, Bernstein might seem to fit into the straight-ahead axis, given his associations and lack of modernist touches like effect pedals. But more accurately and refreshingly, Bernstein belongs to an older conception of jazz musician, one where people played with honesty, the results brimming with sincerity and transcending genre divisions, a lineage that stretches through figures like Ellington, Montgomery and Thelonious Monk. "To be on the cutting edge is to really improvise, however it comes out, if it comes out hip or it comes out old-fashioned, being on the cutting edge means you're really improvising and going up there without an agenda. I always try to keep that in my head, just because something looks hip doesn't necessarily mean that it's hip."

The connection to Monk is a particularly strong one. "He's just a great example of someone completely connected to the musical environment he grew up in but also completely original, completely found his own thing and went with that," says Bernstein. The guitarist's latest album was a challenge not unlike his recent ventures into solo playing, a disc solely consisting of Monk tunes done in trio with bassist Doug Weiss and Bernstein's longtime drummer Bill Stewart. Titled simply Monk and released on the reincarnated Xanadu label, this is only Bernstein's second trio album and first to include any tunes by the iconoclastic pianist. "I'd always been trying to learn his music, play a couple of his tunes here and there, but I got a chance to do this recording...I was thinking about doing some Monk tunes and... I thought why not try to tackle a whole record of Monk tunes, give it a kind of identity of its own hopefully. ...I feel like you have to play these tunes 20 years before you're really ready to do it but I didn't have 20 years so I tried to not do anything that different with the tunes. One tune we played in 5/4 so that changed up the feeling but everything else was pretty much the tempo that felt comfortable but not a radical departure from the original tune, just trying to get in the space of playing trio was the main thing too. Tackling his music I thought would make me play different which I think it did. It's a continuing thing for me. I'd like to do more of Monk's tunes and I'd like to do more trio for sure because of the space that it offers you."

Recommended Listening:

Larry Goldings, Light Blue (Minor Music, 1992)

Peter Bernstein, Signs of Life (Criss Cross, 1994)

Jimmy Cobb's Mob, Cobb's Groove (Milestone, 2003)

Dr. Lonnie Smith, Jungle Soul (Palmetto, 2005)

Don Friedman—Waltz for Marilyn (Jazz Excursion, 2007)

Peter Bernstein Trio, Monk (Xanadu, 2007-08)


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