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'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, Jimmy Cobb and Dr. Lonnie Smith as well as those of peers like Larry Goldings, Eric Alexander and Joshua Redman, 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 leaderseven albums, most for the Criss Cross labeland a desirable sideman. A listen to one of his recent appearances, Don Friedman's Waltz for Marilyn (Jazz Excursion) or David "Fathead" Newman'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 (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 and Wes Montgomery to John McLaughlin and first love Jimi Hendrix. "The players that seemed to have a more personal sound," observes Bernstein, "they just played the instrument, like Jim Hall or Kenny Burrell or Grant Green, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Raney, 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."
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 FriedmanWaltz for Marilyn (Jazz Excursion, 2007)
Peter Bernstein Trio, Monk (Xanadu, 2007-08)