Jeff Berlin: Still the Ace of Bass

John Patten By

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Through the course of a four-decade career, Jeff Berlin has refused to end his musical quest. He crafted a popping, percussive style so thoroughly ingrained in the recordings of the 1980s, it's nearly ubiquitous. His work with Bill Bruford, whom he met during a stint with Yes, led to further innovations in playing.

More recently, he's been developing a contrapuntal style of playing that allows him to approach bass guitar as a pianist, adding harmony and melody to his steady bottom line. Berlin also opened the Players School of Music, in Clearwater, Florida, in 1988, focused on teaching contemporary and jazz music using his ideas on learning music and performance. His experience as not only one of the most in-demand sidemen, but also as a founder of the Los Angeles-based Bass Institute of Technology, helped him develop an approach that he says keeps students focused on making music. He's so confident in the program, he issued a guarantee for students attending a week-long intensive session, scheduled for September 13-17, 2010.

All About Jazz: You've kind of thrown down the gauntlet for the Intensive Music Program, according to a press release ("I've said so many negative things about so much of music education, that my reputation is riding upon the very improvement that I promise to players who attend this event. One hundred percent who attend must get better as players or I will have to answer for it! For this reason, I made sure that everybody on every instrument, on every musical level goes home better than when they first arrived!"). What made you issue such an ultimatum? Have you changed something in the curriculum or approach that's used?

Jeff Berlin: I threw down the gauntlet because I can't lose the bet. One hundred percent of anybody who comes to my school—reader, non-reader, player, non- player—will improve if they do the work that is assigned to them. The first thing that they learn is that it is okay to make mistakes. This is their right as students to do and this is one reason why they improve so fast with me; they learn to not be worried about making mistakes.

Another thing is that I don't emphasize performance in time to the students—I'm not talking about ensembles in music school where students play on tunes to learn how to play better. I'm referring to the insistence of putting groove, time or practicing with metronomes as important academic study concepts. They aren't, because things related to time and feel are automatically grandfathered into the learning, practicing and playing experience. In other words, you will groove as your musical experience grows, so first learn what to do before you try to perform.

Remember the Charlie Parker story where the drummer threw his cymbal on the floor to interrupt the young inexperienced Parker's bad playing? If the story is true or not, it isn't a stretch to assume that at that time in his musical life, Parker didn't know enough about music to perform it with those top players. So he disappeared into the practice room, while continuing playing on regional gigs, until he emerged to become the player that he became. This is how it was for every good player! Music solves all things and for this and other reasons, I can't lose the bet. I don't expect the students to play well. I expect them to practice well—ot long hours, not hard music—but well! Everybody who comes to the One Week Intensive will go home a better player because they aren't expected to perform, but to learn. Their performance will happen to them as an automatic payback for learning properly. It always does!

AAJ: What are some of the goals you have for the Players School? What have you learned from your students? What have you learned from operating the school?

JB: What I learned from my students is that they vindicate me in all that I have said about music education that some people consider controversial. If my students did not improve as players through the methods that I have prescribed, then I would have to be blind not to see this and change directions in how I taught. But this never happened—more's the contrary! Guys who couldn't read a single note were noticeably improved in a few weeks, without exception. People improved at my school because music is the center of everything they practice, and lucky for them that it is. Their improvement told me that music itself was the Grand Poobah of all educational methods. There simply is nothing in music education to compare with real, perfect, undeniably-without-flaw musical fact. If you learn one note, then you can learn another. And another! Remember that all that it took to open up the entire world to a blind and deaf Helen Keller was one single word, water, spelled into her hand by her teacher. One word, and her life was changed. Some musicians are still blind and deaf because they aren't learning the musical equivalent of "water!" I won't let this happen at my school!

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 music—is 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.

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
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