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Jeff Berlin: Making Jack Songs, Making Amends, Making A New Path

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Part of the joy of music is evolving. You want to evolve. That's a liberating element. Evolution, both as a musician and a human being, is something I’m grateful for.
—Jeff Berlin
Chances are, if you know Jeff Berlin's name, you know at least some of the bassist's now-classic work with such seminal jazz/rock/fusion mainstays as Bill Bruford or Allan Holdsworth. If so, you may also know of his 10 albums as a leader or some of his many other sideman, supergroup and touring credits. If you're still saying yes, it's likely you also know about his longtime commitment and passion as a bass educator. And if you're still checking boxes in the affirmative, you might also know that his sterling reputation as a top-tier player has acquired something else of late: a bit of dissonance.

Through a combination of his passionate nature, his unwavering views on bass education that often chafe against the status quo and the viral, amplifying qualities of the internet, Mr. Berlin has found himself somewhat "embroiled in the ethers" in recent years. And as is the norm in this age, what results is often the propagation of differing, inherently inaccurate opinions and perceptions of a person and their motivations. To that end, in doing this interview, it was impossible not to come away with a much more clear, affable—and human—sense of who Jeff Berlin is. Hopefully, the interview itself conveys this too.

Our conversation covers his views on bass education, his new tribute album to Jack Bruce, as well as his tribulations, revelations and evolutions—both musical and personal.

Jeff Berlin sat down with All About Jazz in fall 2022 via Zoom.

All About Jazz: You've recently released a new album, Jack Songs (self-released, 2022), that is a real departure for you. What has the reaction to it been like?

Jeff Berlin: I've had some really stellar responses on the new album and it's really warming my heart. All musicians like when their music is appreciated, and I've always had good reviews, but a lot of these reactions go beyond that. I'm quite thrilled that people enjoy it.

AAJ: It's pretty well known that you have been a Jack Bruce fan for many years—your quoting of the bass line to "Politician" on the Bruford Tapes (E.G. Records, 1979) album comes to mind. Why was Bruce so important to you?

JB: I've always felt that people come into this world with a propensity towards something—{Muhummad] Ali with boxing, [Ernest] Hemingway with writing, etc. I'm not comparing myself to these guys but I've always felt that I was born to be a musician. The fact that hearing certain musicians' playing impacted my life so immensely seems to be evidence of this.

When I first heard Wheels of Fire (Polydor, 1968) with "Crossroads" and "Spoonful," I wasn't merely impressed, I was actually transformed. Jack's playing floored me and had me wrapped around his little finger. But more than that, it caused me to re-evaluate my role on my instrument and explore ways [of playing] that were original unto me. I have Jack to thank for that. .

AAJ: You've mentioned in other interviews that you started on violin. Was Jack Bruce the impetus for you to switch from violin to bass?

JB: That was actually Paul McCartney. When I heard The Beatles, I knew I wasn't going to stay a violinist. I also then recognized that the four-string electric bass had the same string names as a violin—G D A E— just in reverse order because it's just tuned in fifths where a bass is tuned in fourths.

In my youthful naivete, I thought I could learn the bass in a month. I mean, I was already playing Mendelssohn, so how hard could it be to play the bass, right? That [attitude] caused me to dive into the more ridiculous concepts of overplaying. As a younger man without an understanding of restraint and style, I wanted to continue the same classical music concepts on the bass—and I became your classic over-player.

The changing of that direction came directly from Jack in that he was an innovator in not just playing a root or a fifth. His genius—an overused term but I kinda think it applies to him—was that in certain areas, he could play notes that were not part of the chord. In Cream's jams, whatever the chord was, Eric Clapton never left that chord. He was a one-chord tonality, blues-based guitarist. That was his strength. Jack's strength was that he could go out of the harmony and come back into it. When I heard that, especially on tunes like "I'm So Glad" on Goodbye Cream (Polydor, 1969) and "Sweet Wine" on Live Cream (Atco, 1970), that was it. I think [the latter] may have some of the most remarkable demonstrations of Jack Bruce's bass playing. He played as funky as [legendary Motown bassist] James Jamerson. When I heard those funky repeated riffs and then him playing notes that weren't part of the key, banging against the harmony—and then he would resolve it... This is what impacted me so greatly and made me want to continue seeking out higher levels of music—different harmony structures and higher levels of approach to the bass.

This, to me, is what Jack Songs is. In my arrangements of the music and bass playing on the record, it's my demonstration of the philosophy of Jack Bruce, and it represents this period of my musical life perfectly.

AAJ: One of the interesting things about your new album is that, in comparison to your recent material and perhaps the bulk of your catalog—which is largely bass-centric, jazz-oriented, improv-laden instrumental music—Jack Songs is song-oriented with vocals. There's no shortage of improvisation and bass-centricity on it, but dare I say, it almost comes off as a rock record.

JB: Yes, dare you, dare you. That is precisely what this record is.

AAJ: It seems you could have easily done an instrumental Jack Bruce tribute that was akin to your earlier releases in style. What made you go a different route with Jack Songs?

JB: I went a different route because Jack's music was either a playing event of improvisation or it was based in melodic, vocal-based songs. I wanted to represent Jack's spirit properly, and one thing I didn't want to do was [an album of] covers. So I decided to take a Giles Martin [producer-son of famed Beatles producer George Martin] -type approach like he put into [the Cirque de Soleil production and album] The Beatles' Love (Apple/Capitol/Parlophone, 2006). He took like five or six Beatles themes, right out of the recordings, and combined them into one song. They were all in time and all in the same key and when I heard that, I flipped out. It was some of the most brilliant and original producing that I had heard in a long time.

So I took Giles Martin's concept of arranging the music differently and applied it to Jack's music and his songs with Cream so that people familiar with them would get the pure aspect of that art, but via arrangements that no one had imagined before. And it all goes back to that early lesson I learned from Jack's music: be original, be different.

I stuck to the vocal element because I really didn't want to hear a tenor saxophone playing the vocal melody of "Sunshine Of Your Love." It never worked in my mind. This was meant to be a rock album, a vocal album and an arranged album. I think I combined all those elements in ways and with other things that haven't been done before. Dennis Chambers called me up after listening to the album and said that he had never imagined Jack's music this way. That leads me to believe that I've done something here.

My challenge was trying to put together an eight-to-ten-track record that would encompass the span of a musician's entire career, if that's even possible. That's in part the reason why there are so many stitched-together combinations of references on the album and part of what makes this album unique. The very first song, "Creamed" has the bass line from "Politician," the vocal from "Sunshine of Your Love," then it switches to the vocal from "Politician," with the bass line from "Sunshine of Your Love," then ends with "White Room" and "NSU," etc... That's what made this [project] unique, for me anyway.

AAJ: Well there's no arguing that there's some really creative and original arranging taking place on the album. You even embed some other musical references in the music.

JB: There was a Jethro Tull reference and also a tidbit from the Andy Griffith Show in there. (laughs) I like humor and I think it works well in music. I like to add little things that pull on one's ear and I think it only adds to the musicality of it.

AAJ: With the enviably long list of guests on this record, I'm guessing the bulk of it was done virtually?

JB: Yes, it was all virtual and was a remarkable undertaking. The biggest problem was how to invite close to 30 musicians to contribute solos or parts and make the end product sound organic. It was one of the greatest stitch jobs I could ever imagine, but for that I have to thank the producer, John McCracken. Obviously, I had the musical inputs and the Giles Martin-type concept, but everything from the bass sound, to the seamless incorporation of all the virtual tracks to the shimmering sound of the record is John's producing skill.

AAJ: With all that flying-in of parts and stitching together, how long did this record take to produce?

JB: Four years.

AAJ: For comparison's sake, on average, how long did your previous albums take?

JB: Ten days.

AAJ: Wow...

JB: We would do a little bit and then stop, then go back again—constantly over the whole time. And in addition to all the contributions that made the record, we had guys that contributed parts that we ended up not needing. They were all wonderful players and it was a very difficult thing for me to not use their final parts.

I should mention that when the project began, we were involved with a company called Pledge Music to help fund the record. The company ended up going bankrupt and took all the money that people had pledged with it. I didn't get any of it. It was a real loss for everyone. So after that happened, I was financing things piecemeal—a track here, a track there. Then I was touring and gigging in between. That's part of the reason it took four years.

Sitting back now after it's all done, I'm glad I went through all that, but I gotta tell you, I'm tired. (laughs) We put our life's blood into this and I don't know if I want to do another one like this again—but I am very enthusiastic about how it turned out. For the next record though, I think I'll just stick a mic in the middle of the room. (laughs)

AAJ: The album is conspicuously absent from streaming platforms.

JB: We live in a time when music isn't routinely purchased. People are used to getting it for free and sometimes ask why the album isn't just available to them. I've got to politely thank them for their interest but the answer is no. I've invested hours—years—of effort and every available dollar I had into this. John invested his time. It's not something I want to just give away. It's a bit of a challenge today because there's so much that's just... available.

We've sold quite a bit already to my fans and Jack Bruce fans, obviously but because people like Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson are on it, we've gotten a response from a lot of Rush fans. Sammy Hagar's on it so we got some Van Halen fans supporting it. I'm touting it obviously because it's my record but I do think it's something really special. It may seem egotistical to tell people they are going to hear something that they have never heard before, but I honestly think it's true, and I don't think I should be ashamed of my enthusiasm for this project. I love my fans for supporting it and am grateful for anyone who supports my career.

AAJ: Knowing your early work and then listening to your more recent output, it seems like your chops are certainly still there, but a lot of your focus in recent years has been channeled more and more into arranging. Is this a conscious shift on your part?

JB: Well, I've been fortunate. I did things early on [in my career] that were fairly different for the time. I'm no Jaco Pastorius. I'm not sure any of us could be in that he had such a remarkable impact with his vision and originality. But where I might be at least occupying a building in the same neighborhood, so to speak, early on I did unaccompanied bass solos and my bass technique was fairly unique.

But now, in this part of my life, two things are really clear. One, there are a million bass players that play way, way better than I do. They have a technique and a facility that I can never match—and I'm okay with that. Second though, I also noticed that many of my colleagues were presenting these Olympian feats of playing, but the context in which they came was often less developed than the playing was. It might be just one key or a riff and then a solo. And it can be just stunning, seriously but...

I kind of have this ability to notice things—what's going on around me, musically, but also, I hear where a lot of people don't go. That's where I go: there. It's like everybody looks for gold in the mountain, but I look for it in the valley. Doing that accounts for the arranging focus you mentioned and it has developed over years. I'm also still a student. I still transcribe and look at scores. I listen to soloists on different instruments who are way better than I am.

I'll never get to the great levels of a Gary Burton or a Keith Jarrett. I kind of rose up to the middle but it tends actually to be a rather unique area in music for bass. I have a technical facility but I prefer not to enter that uber-technical area because in many ways I feel I am no longer capable of providing something unique in that way. So instead of trying to play as technically hard and fast as my betters are doing, I wanted to play the bass where I was in technical control, the tone was special, the lines were special and they fit the arrangements in ways that provided something really different.

I had hand surgery so I'll never be able to play exactly like I used to, but it opened another door for me, another way. So I feel this is how I can offer something that might be special to me and unique to the world of bass playing.

AAJ: Well, there are certainly those who would dispute the fact that you think you are no longer a bass virtuoso but perhaps more importantly, you have a very distinct sound and an identifiable musicality.

JB: Ah, at my age, I'm now like the king of the bass schlep. (laughs)

AAJ: Are there things you did years ago that, listening to them now, you couldn't...or wouldn't play now?

JB: Well, part of the joy of music is evolving. You want to evolve. That's a liberating element. So when you ask about my playing in the old days, I am a bit compromised now but I could still play "Joe Frazier" and other things, but evolution —both as a musician and a human being—is something I'm grateful for.

AAJ: There are a lot of points in your recorded career that as a listener, seem like stand-out moments. Something like "Joe Frazier" is famously one, the out-solo in [Allan Holdsworth's song] "Road Games" is another—and not just for its technique but even more for a unique musicality that is yours.

JB: Well, that's very kind. You know, it's kind of amazing how that solo has endured. I practiced that for weeks. And when I got sick of it, I practiced it some more. I really had the idea that when you hit record, those things can last forever—and look what happened. So my practice philosophy served me well in that case.

AAJ: Speaking of practice, over the years you've been very active in music education and bass instruction. Another recent thing you have produced is the Bass Mastery instructional book. As someone who has and does teach master-level classes regularly, why did you target the book at beginners?

JB: Over the years I've become more interested in [teaching] new players than advanced players because the advanced players already know what to do. So then I couldn't find a sequential, step-by-step bass method that went from the most basic beginning to increasingly harder lessons to practice. Drawing on how I first learned on violin—and since classical musicians end up being great readers and players in their style—I've based the book on how all classical musicians begin to learn how to read music. I thought if bass players had this method—even while they are still listening to and pursuing the music that they love—they would have access to a foundational resource to help them play the bass better.

See, there are two ways in learning bass or any instrument. One is we are taught the mechanics of it. The second is that we self-teach—we chose our own bands, we chose the records we love, we fool around on the instrument in our own personal way. The second part we do all on our own, with our own ears. It's us teaching ourselves the thing we like to hear and get out of the instrument. What's left is pure music instruction and that's core curriculum.

Learning and playing are two different paradigms. Combining the two confuses things in my opinion and makes bass education unreliable.

AAJ: So the idea is that your book presents a universally applicable musical foundation?

JB: And it's without style. Pretty much every style has a G major chord in there somewhere. With some exceptions, almost all styles function in the same key frameworks, in the same metric frameworks and rhythmic subdivisions. From Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke to the Delta blues to disco to the hair bands, new wave, rap and hip-hop, they all function in the same kind of keys. I found that for a lot of bassists, the only limitation they had was not knowing what the notes were before they got into their style of music, whatever that may be. If there's something in music that people love, they should pursue it, but it's something that is and can be self-taught through personal investigation. Also, I think people don't take the time to sound bad anymore. We all played badly, out of time, with lousy tone when we started—me included. It's a mandatory stepping stone to the necessary self-investigation.

I was raised 10 years on the violin—since age 5, then I got deeply into jazz study. Then I got deeply into studying with individual teachers. And in my time, it was all pure music study. My particular background is different than others' so I think I became aware of music education in a way that a lot of others haven't.

I feel that if people seek out instruction, the one element that would help everyone equally improve would be to practice written music. It's only designed to make one play better. I didn't invent it, I just applied a lot of the classical tenets to bass playing. It's bound to help people play better. So I wrote a manual that could be applicable for every bassist if they have the patience to dedicate a few minutes a day, every day. Once you learn this stuff, it's for life.

AAJ: So how do you feel this veers away from where music education is currently?

JB: Well, bass education seems to have taken a lot of detours. I believe it has mistakenly morphed into catering to the palate of the students that they are teaching. I often joke about if I were the head of a higher educational music program, half the students would leave. The half that stayed, though, would be the best-prepared bassists to both enter into music as a career, and be more able to express themselves at a far higher level on the instrument.

AAJ: Do you believe that these "detours" have happened out of music institutions becoming more like businesses that focus on trying to attract customers/students with things that are designed to appeal to them rather than actually help them?

JB: I believe that's true, especially if you look at the variety of changes that have taken place and the variety of lessons that have been invented in recent years. Imagine if the instructors in medical schools were altering the curriculum to appeal to and attract students. I feel a line needs to be drawn. The priority should be on maintaining criteria for excellence for the good of the students' results, not on gaining students for money.

Everything I've done in bass education was entirely based on the result for the student. That's why I've never asked the question, So what do you want to work on? Short of wanting to play faster or wanting to play specific songs better, I'm not sure a student would really know how to reasonably answer that. Interestingly, even speed and songs hearken back to learning what a note is. I believe the source for what they want is studying a written pitch. That approach flourishes in classical music and it flourishes in most of jazz. The notes are first, just like words are to language. If music is a language, how can we speak it well if we don't know what the words are?

I think bass players today are often more impressed with the thought of learning from teachers they admire and love the players more than the learning itself. And they think it will give them a career.

AAJ: Your stance hasn't garnered you a lot of love from certain quarters of the music educational realm. You've had some infamous battles on the internet in recent times over bass education with some fairly high-profile players and educators. This is at a time when merely being adamant and passionate about things—especially those that go against the status quo—can be a treacherous thing in the digital age. Have you found this to be detrimental?

JB: I've been at the edge of popularity and controversy for my views and in retrospect, I have greatly regretted the tone and manner with which I have shared them. I've been very aware that my online presence has not done well with people—particularly relating to my criticisms of [bassists and bass educators] Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey.

I've been in therapy and for a long time now, I've been into self-evaluation, spiritual practice and changing my mindset. I grew up in a house where criticism was a way of life. People like me who had that grow up crooked, out of balance with life and ourselves. I've been very combative, especially where my educational acumen was concerned. I get that people read things I've said on the internet and see me as combative and difficult.

I've spent years trying to stop doing this. I went online and apologized to Steve and Victor and admitted that what I did was wrong and that I shouldn't have been critical. Then a month later, I'd go right back to doing it again. I apologized, fell back, apologized, fell back. At those times, I really thought my apologies were honest but... it happened a lot. It happened for years. I guess I was still a work in progress, therapy-wise.

Just recently though, I've had a kind of breakthrough and realized that my whole approach to asserting my opinions was correctly viewed as ill-tempered criticisms and attacks on two guys who didn't deserve it. When I finally got to this awareness—when I realized what I had done, and all of the years I had done it—I was so shaken up, I couldn't leave the house for three or four days. I called these guys, twice each, and left them messages saying that I knew there was nothing I can say to make up for the years of attacks, but that now I realized at a gut level how wrong it was and that I owed them a huge apology. I also went online and put up a video on my page because I wanted to come clean, I wanted people to know that I really understood how wrong I was, but two phone messages and a video can't just wash away all that. I'm still in difficulty over it and deeply regret my behavior.

My educational acumen remains the same but I have to be clear to Steve Bailey, Victor Wooten, and everyone else, that what I did was uncalled for. My wife tried to get me to stop, my friends tried... Steve and Victor even told me that bass teachers ought to work together and that I should join them instead of fighting them, but it never got in my head. I genuinely realize now that people are entitled to their own views on how to do things and I'm here to help, not tell them how messed up they are for not doing it my way.

Even now, talking to you about it, I'm shaking. (pause) I really regret all the time that I was not aware of what I was doing. So my approach to teaching may be fairly well-intact, but I have since taken to heart that inclusion is best, sharing is best and attacking a colleague is absolutely wrong.

Any negative perception I got out of it all was totally earned. I don't know if I can ever rebuild the bridge I burnt between Victor and Steve and me, but that's not what it's about. It's about owning my behavior. I hope that I can earn a change in people's perception of me by putting what I've learned into action moving forward.

AAJ: The experiences you've had in therapy have led to some revelations that have changed you personally. Do you feel they have changed you as a musician at all?

JB: In a sense, I'm getting out of my own way. Something that my therapist/spiritual instructor got me to accept was that when we lighten up on ourselves and life presents whatever it does, we flow with it. And she was 100% right. It may sound odd but after that, music began to flow. I have ideas constantly now. Working in the studio, I hear everything on playbacks. My compositional sense is evolving. My bass sense has evolved even more. The tenets that construct music within me now are allowed to function more naturally, if that makes any sense.

I want to mention this because if anyone reading this is having a difficult time emotionally, therapy is a wonderful way to try to heal. I went through a very, very challenging therapeutic experience but I came out the other end of it a different man. I'm grateful for every hard step, every moment of anxiety, and every tear because it was leading me to a whole new paradigm, a whole new palette as a person and a musician. That's the beauty of evolution. We're going to grow and maybe do the same stuff. It's never going to sound the same, but it may sound even better.

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