Jeff Berlin: Still the Ace of Bass
AAJ: Was the bass your first instrument? How did you come to play it?
JB: Violin was my first instrument and I studied it for 10 years. I'm a conservatory-trained classical musician with a background in some of the most amazing classical studies. As a kid, I played in regional symphony orchestras, played recitals, and pretty much hung out with some of the best classical musicians of different ages on Long Island. My father was right; he said that one day I would thank him for the music education that he encouraged me to participate in. He's right! I was lucky that I went through this apprenticeship.
Then I heard The Beatles play on Ed Sullivan, and I lost my interest to pursue classical music. When I turned 14 years of age, I took the money that I saved from my newspaper route and bought my first bass guitar and joined some of the bands that were playing around Great Neck, New York, the town that I grew up in back in the 1960s. I used to live not far from where Andy Kaufman lived; he and I have the same birthday, and we both went to the same high school.
AAJ: Who was the player that really caught your ears and made you decide to pursue a musical career?
JB: The Beatles are the major reason for my decision to be a musician. But, as far as bass was concerned, it was Jack Bruce's inventive bass playing on those live Cream recordings that got me committed to becoming a bassist. Because of my background on violin, I usually heard the top lines of music rather than the bottom. My ear just went to the melody or the guide tone lines for some reason. Jack Bruce played as if he did the same thing, and so, as an influence, he was an important one for me, reinforcing the lesser traditional approach to bass playing. This encouraged me to learn music on the bass that wasn't related to the bottom of the music, where it actually should have been. But blame Jack Bruce for this; it is all his fault! It took me some years to figure out how to get low as a bassist and also hold onto my credo to make it a little more interesting, for my own edification.
AAJ: Regarding Jack Bruce's influence, what kinds of things did you adapt to the idea of "Get low but still keep it interesting?" Is that how your plucking style developed?
JB: I adapted the idea to change my self-servicing bass playing style, and can equate this with a Rodney Dangerfield joke. He said that at the beginning of his career, when nothing was happening, he quit show business. To let people know how well he was doing at the time he quit, he was the only one who knew he quit. As a bassist, my version of that joke goes like this: At the beginning of my career, I used to play fast, busy bass lines. To let you know what other musicians thought when I played those fast lines, I was the only one who heard those fast lines. Nobody wanted to play with me if I didn't provide them with something to grab onto, perhaps the route of the chord once in a while? Keith Jarrett may play a variety of harmony in his solos and comping, but he usually does it in 4/4.
Regarding my plucking style, I would think that my violin training taught me to regard every note as sacrosanct. This meant that I had to play each note because it had meaning, not to be fluffed over. Over time, this playing philosophy sort of melted down to a nice, general oozy flow of notes and space and an uncompromising respect for the chords. My hands became less of a focal point and more of responding limbs to the music that I was playing.
AAJ: The list of players you've worked with in your career is a "Who's Who" of modern musicis there anyone you've just not been able to arrange a chance to work with? If you could travel back in time, whom would you most want to work with?
JB: When I was living in New York City during the 1970s, drummer Al Foster once called me to say that Miles Davis was looking for me to come to some studio and record. I used to play around New York with Al, a truly great drummer. But I was in Europe at the time playing with Toots Thielemans and I missed the call and subsequently missed the chance to play with Miles. I would have liked to have made that gig.
Another gig that I actually auditioned for but didn't get was to play with Herbie Hancock. Years ago, I was in Los Angeles and my girlfriend at the time picked me up from the airport. Herbie was standing on the curb looking for a taxi. We offered him a ride. In the car, he asked if I would audition for a new band that he was forming. At that time in my musical life, I still had very little vision about what and how to play properly in a rhythm section. I could read anything and I played faster than most guys in that time. But content-wise, I was a long way away from finding something as a bassist that would make me a good rhythm section partner in a band. Herbie heard this in my playing when I auditioned for him and he didn't hire me for this reason. And he was right! I still had a lot to learn about playing well in a rhythm section.