Jeff Berlin: Still the Ace of Bass
AAJ: Why do you think electric bassists haven't made more impact in traditional jazz?
JB: Because electric bass players are generally not that interested in jazz. To play jazz, you have to really want to play this music. I mean that it has to fill up your musical day to want to represent this music well. Jazz is not a music that gives up its secrets without a fight. We are in an era where instant gratification is the way of the land, and fighting to learn how to play is not in the plans of many electric bassists. I wish that it were otherwise.
From left: Richard Drexler, Randy Brecker, Jeff Berlin
Othello Molineaux and Paul Wertico, on tour in Germany, 2008
AAJ: What draws your interest in a composition? You mentioned in an interview playing "Groovin' High" for years before finally feeling you'd found a solid approach to itdo you find certain tunes seem to stick more than others?
JB: Certainly there are tunes that mean more to me than others. What draws me to certain tunes are the chord changes that are familiar enough to play over without too much preparation or thought. This is why Mike Stern has been playing "I Love You" or "Softly, As In as Morning Sunrise" for years, or why Pat Metheny played "All The Things You Are" and "Solar" also for many years. These songs are familiar to them, where thought and preparation isn't an issue, but musical response is.
The song list on "High Standards" wasn't entirely of songs that I was familiar with. "If I Were a Bell" was a tune that I didn't know very well and rarely played over, but I think that Richard Drexler wanted to play on that song. However, "Groovin' High," "Nardis," "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "Body and Soul" are well-oiled compositions since I was a kid. "Solar," of course, is the standard of all time, the tune that everyone knows how to play if they are a jazz player. Plus, I wanted to record something that was a nod to my violin days. Richard Drexler was raised exactly as I was, as a classically trained violinist. We decided to put that short Ravel piece to represent a segment of the "classical standards" that we both knew. This tune took a little over a minute to record, but it took me around six weeks of practicing to learn the bass part. Because there wasn't any usable bass part to play, I wrote the part out by combining lines from both the right and left hands of the piano part. It actually worked out quite well.
AAJ: Going back a bit on your recordings, your recording of "Tears in Heaven" brings together the elements Joe Pass would weave in his arrangements: a bass line, harmony and the melody. Can you comment on how you put everything together on that arrangement?
JB: Before I begin, I have a funny Joe Pass story to tell you. When Joe and I met in the 1980s we would occasionally play together. But this was during the time when I started to tone down my overplaying and tried to play more appropriately, and I did this when Joe and I played as well. Once, when we were rehearsing a tune, he stopped the group and turned to me and said, "How come you don't play that busy shit with me like you do with everybody else!" Go figure! Damned if you do, damned if you don't!
Back to "Tears in Heaven"the chords of that song lent themselves to the bass very well and were perfect to arrange something special to play. Learning and practicing guide tone lines on the bass, and a pursuit of harmony that opened a million musical doors for me were my inspiration to make my version of "Tears," plus "Dixie" and "Clinton Country," as well into unique bass vignettes. I still play "Tears In Heaven" on concerts, and each night I try to do a better version of it. I kept some of the parts exactly as I arranged them, and other parts I change on the fly and try to improvise on as I perform the piece. The bass is a sort of limited instrument to choose not-so-bass- sounding note choices and chords. So music itself had to open up the possibilities for me to expand on the instrument. "Tears" and those other solo tunes were my way to put together all of the great variety of playing that I have learned from so many brilliant musicians who didn't play the bass guitar.
AAJ: How did your tour last year with John Abercrombie and Adam Nussbaum come about? Had you played with John before?
JB: I've loved John's guitar playing for years, and I always felt that musically we were kindred spirits. We were offered a tour in Europe. I asked Adam Nussbaum, an old friend and legendary drummer to join us. John is such a brilliant player and I loved playing with him and Adam. One night, Bob Mintzer came to play with us in Italy. He was burning, and the group went up a few notches that night. Interestingly, at the end of our tour, John said that he couldn't hear me when I was playing, which might be true because I turned down my volume so that I wouldn't be overbearing to John and Adam. It turns out that John never asked the monitor guy to put a little of my bass into his monitor. Too bad, because from where I was standing, the sonics were greattotally balanced and a joy to hear and play in that sonic veil. I wish that we recorded a couple of those nights, because they would have made a wonderful live album. It was an honor for me to play with John, and I hope to do more in the future.