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

AAJ: High Standards (M.A.J. Records, 2010) has such an eclectic mix of tunes—they'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 basses—was 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 together—he on upright, me on electric—for 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 way—a 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.

AAJ: Many of the solos on High Standards swing like a bebop guitar solo, rather than a "bass solo"—were you inspired by any of the great bebop guitarists?

JB: No! I was inspired by Keith Jarrett, Gary Burton, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans—plus 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 guitarist—Gary Burton, for example—are 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, Michael Brecker's solos. For this and other reasons, I am the best bassist in the middle you've ever heard.

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 it—do 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 great—totally 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.

AAJ: There are a lot of debates about the future of jazz, but as someone who's been an innovator in jazz, jazz-rock, fusion and, even arguably, rock, do you see such distinctions lasting much longer?

JB: As a leader, I'm not in the jazz fusion mindset right now. I would play it once in a while if a gig comes up, as it did with Scott Henderson and Dennis Chambers. But the distinction between jazz and jazz fusion has impacted upon my career because I made a deliberate attempt to leave fusion behind and enter straight into what might be called traditional jazz. As I mentioned, some jazz players and fans of jazz don't regard the electric bass as a significant jazz instrument, and so I have some work ahead of me, to try to encourage the purists to regard what I do on the electric bass as jazz and as meaningful. But maybe they are right. There isn't a lot of history of outstanding electric jazz bass players. Right now, the only two exclusively purely jazz electric bassists that I am aware of are Steve Swallow and myself. Other guys double, and guys like Anthony Jackson aren't purely into jazz. There really isn't a large musical precedent for meaningful electric bass jazz performance. In fusion, yes. In jazz, no.

AAJ: The music industry has changed so much since you started out—digital recording and files, the Internet and social media controlled by artists and less industry control. Do you think this has increased opportunities for musicians or made it more difficult to build a career?

JB: For a guy like me who plays the bass guitar, still an instrument stuck in the back of the bus in this limited music era, the Internet has done me wonders! I know that I will never get signed by a label of significance, because who in their right mind would sign a bassist? Even the jazz labels have showed no interest in me, even though I've sold loads of CDs on my own. Therefore, if I didn't control my own music career, recording and selling my own material through the net or through outlets like CDBaby.com, then my career would be struggling.

The Internet, in my case, has made me more popular all over the world, more than any record company that I was signed to in the past has done for me. I just did a gig throughout Asia with Scott Henderson and Dennis Chambers, and the gigs were packed. Lots of guys came up to me afterward, and some told me that they found out about me online. Usually these were the younger kids who never listened to the fusion of the 1970s and '80s that I used to be a part of. I get emails—you know, those "Oh my God"-type of letters—usually from younger guys who write to me after they've heard me play on some Youtube clip. Forgive this next comment, but I am an extremely good clinician. I can explain and demonstrate musical concepts in a way that few can. The Internet allowed for many schools to contact me to hold a clinic for their music students. Plus, I've met lots of new friends on the net—great people, supportive and kind! Oh yes, the Internet is fantastic and it has done wonders for my career.

To paraphrase Garrett Morris playing Chico Escuela, the Latin baseball player on Saturday Night Live, "The Internet been berry, berry good to me!"

Selected discography

Jeff Berlin, High Standards (M.A.J. Records, 2010)

Jeff Berlin, Aneurythms (M.A.J. Records, 2006)

Jeff Berlin, Lump Jazz (M.A.J. Records, 2006)

Jeff Berlin, Ace of Bass (King Japan, 2005)

Twinemen, Twinemen (Hi-and-Dry, 2002)

Jeff Berlin, In Harmony's Way (J.Jazz, 2001)

Jeff Berlin, Crossroads (Denon, 1999)

Jeff Berlin, Taking Notes (Denon, 1997)

Nathan Cavaleri Band, Nathan (Epic, 1994)

Kazumi Watanabe, The Spice of Life (Sonet, 1987)

Jeff Berlin, Pump It! (Passport, 1986)

Allan Holdsworth, Road Games (Music Grinder, 1983)

Passport, Lifelike (Wounded Bird, 1980)

Bruford, Gradually Going Tornado (Editions E.G., 1980)

Bruford, Rock Goes to College (Winterfold, 1979)

Bruford, One of a Kind (Winterfold, 1979)

David Liebman, Light'n Up, Please! (A&M Records, 1977)

Bruford, Feels Good to Me (Winterfold, 1977)

Photo credits

Page 1: Lee Burgess Photography

Page 2: Jason Lammons

Page 3: Courtesy of Bill Bruford

Pages 4, 5: Courtesy of Jeff Berlin

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