Jeff Berlin: Still the Ace of Bass
AAJ: What would you say makes for a stronger bassist in a rhythm section?
JB: A great rhythm section bassist lifts the band. I've become an extremely funky bassist, and my rock approach is quite powerful. Plus, I've found a couple of special new ways to play. Still, it's jazz that sends me into the clouds, like that cartoon dog of the 1960s who, once he ate a dog biscuit, floated up to the sky, and then floated down to the ground in total ecstasy while wheezing, "Ahhhhhhh!" That's me! I almost cannot contain myself from waiting for the next gig, because playing is one big "Ahhhhhhhh!" for me!
Bruford, Circa 1980
From Left: Jeff Berlin, "The Unknown" John Clarke, Dave Stewart, Bill Bruford
AAJ: High Standards (M.A.J. Records, 2010) has such an eclectic mix of tunesthey're standards but only half are American Songbook-type standards. How did you decide to add "Solar" and "Nardis" to a collection with "Body and Soul" and "Someday My Prince will Come?"
JB: Some of the tunes on "High Standards" are among the most established standards in jazz. Some of the tunes on "High Standards" I've been playing for years and a couple of them were also new to me. "High Standards" was directly influenced by Keith Jarrett's recordings of "The American Songbook"-type tunes. As a jazz musician, I wanted very much to enter his musical domain (way below his ability, though it may be) and record some of the tunes that that Keith recorded for Manfred Eicher. As far as I can tell, this has rarely been done with musical success with an electric bass. Maybe it's never been done at all, at least I haven't heard of an electric bass-led jazz trio. Bass is still an instrument not highly regarded with many jazz players and purists. I knew this going into this recording session, aware that a bass guitar didn't have much precedence as a truly jazz soloing instrument. Because of this, I worked like a dog, just practiced all the time, to raise up my solo and comping ability to make sure that when we recorded the CD, that I would offer something special when we recorded these tunes. I wanted to aim higher than I ever did before as a bassist, so that at least I wouldn't sound too far away from the utter brilliance that Keith produced every time that he sat at a piano. And, even if I know that I fell way short of Keith's one-of-a-kind playing, some of my solos are still among the best solos that I ever recorded.
AAJ: Some of the solos on High Standards being your best some use more legato phrasing than usually heard on bass. Was that something you're consciously developing?
JB: Yes! Because bass players were playing staccato bass lines a la Jaco Pastorius, I went the other way and extended each note to produce a legato sound with little space in between the pitches, as many sax and pianists play. My legato playing didn't come from Allan Holdsworth's legato approach, but from my violin training and a need to distance myself from Jaco's powerful influence. So I practiced and developed this until it became a strong point of how I solo and even walk.
AAJ: Regarding your arrangements on songs featuring two basseswas it a challenge to work the arrangements with the close voicing of two basses? How about finding the chordal voicings to use when comping as Richard Drexler is soloing?
JB: Richard and I have played togetherhe on upright, me on electricfor quite a while. We've learned to keep out of each other's way when we play. If he goes low on the upright, I go high on the bass guitar. If he plays an ascending line, I descend. It works perfectly because I choose very carefully what and how I play with the acoustic bass trio.
The chords that I play during the upright bass solos came out imitating the comping styles that a pianist or guitarist would do. I've learned to include guide tones and chord substitutions via two- or three-note chords in the same neighborhood as the great comping guitarists occupy. I'm no Jim Hall here, but he's in my playing somewhere. I ought to add that comping chords on an electric bass is not a playing method needed in most bands. Therefore, this manner of playing practically has no precedent. In my case, this method of playing developed over time, from backing up bass students at The Players School of Music. Eventually I got quite good at comping this waya gift for me when I wasn't really looking for a musical reward for the effort I put in to play this way. It just showed up one day.
JB: No! I was inspired by Keith Jarrett, Gary Burton, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evansplus a million more non-guitar players. I always felt that, in general, great pianists and great sax players were more able to provide more meaningful, harmonically interesting solos than guitar players were. This is a generality, realize. There are some unbelievable guitarists in jazz. But, to me, non guitaristGary Burton, for exampleare in a realm of music that is not obtainable by most musicians. Gary plays in such an astonishingly brilliant manner that I won't ever, not ever, enter into his area of musicality. Gary and the other A-list players like him were the guys who I grew up listening to and imitating. Long ago, I found out that if I aim high in my musical pursuits, I should probably hit somewhere in the middle. As a bassist, I've gotten so much better because I still practice and I still aim very high when I do, imitating Gary's solos, Keith Jarrett's solos, Mike Brecker's solos. For this and other reasons, I am the best bassist in the middle you've ever heard.