In the world of music, there are plenty of "could have beens," but far fewer "should have beens." Count Jeff Berlin amongst the latter. The American electric bassist first made a number of marks in the second half of the musically innovative 1970s on a series of '76 recordings by singers Patti Austin
and Esther Phillips
, composer/arranger Gil Evans
and Swiss progressive rock keyboardist Patrick Moraz, not to mention gigging with everyone from Pat Martino
and George Benson
to Dave Liebman
and Herbie Mann
But it was Berlin's participation in Bill Bruford
's heady first foray into a solo career, beginning with the ex-Yes
drummer's Feels Good to Me
(EG, 1978), where the bassist with staggering dexterity, remarkably expansive language and truly funkified spirit emerged as a potential contrast and competitive groundbreaker to the late Jaco Pastorius
another bassist who, not unlike Berlin, seemed to emerge from nowhere on a swatch of 1976 albums, in Pastorius' case, ranging from the emerging Pat Metheny
and singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell
to fusion supergroup Weather Report
and British rocker Ian Hunter, not to mention his own staggering, eponymous Epic Records leader debut.
That Pastorius' career quickly leapt (and deservingly so) into a rapid ascent only makes Berlin's careerby no means unsuccessful, but never reaching Pastorius' stratospheric heightsall the more criminally undervalued, and demonstrative evidence that why what should have been isn't always as clear as it ought to be.
Pastorius would also emerge as a writer of great significance, pushed into the greater limelight both with Weather Report and in his small but significant discography as a leader, both furthering his reputation during and after his all-too-brief lifetime ended tragically in 1987. Berlin's compositional acumen, at least initially, was more buried during his three-year run with Bruford's surname-titled band with keyboardist Dave Stewart
(Hatfield and the North
, National Health
) and, at the time, guitarist-on-the-rise Allan Holdsworth
(subsequently replaced, in 1979, by the "unknown" John Clark). The bassist contributed nothing compositionally to Feels Good to Me
, but Berlin did
garner a co-compositional credit on Bruford's 1979 follow-up, One of a Kind
(EG), where he co-wrote the bass riff-laden "5G" with Bruford and Stewart.
Bruford and Stewart may, indeed, have been the band's primary composers, but Berlin did manage one solo writing credit on their 1980 studio swan song, Gradually Going Tornado
And what a writing credit it was.
The knotty, harmonically multifaceted yet eminently funky "Joe Frazier" quickly became a fan favorite during Bruford's five months of touring in 1980, which preceded the group's unfortunate dissolution. In many ways, "Joe Frazier" is Berlin's "Teen Town," that Pastorius-penned Weather Report tune, first heard on Heavy Weather
(Columbia, 1977), that has ultimately become something of a right of passage for aspiring electric bassists. Between its challenging thematic constructs, appealing harmonic changes and periodic passages of rapid-fire sixteenth-note bass lines, "Joe Frazier" is certainly as much a mind-bender as "Teen Town"; It just never had the opportunity of reaching as many ears, with Weather Report touring incessantly on the heels of Heavy Weather
and through to 1981, when Pastorius left the group.
Still, nearly four decade later, "Joe Frazier" remains a high point of Gradually Going Tornado
and the group's overall discography. It also very much reflects what could have beenwhat should
have beenfor Berlin and, for that matter, for Stewart, who would achieve some deserved commercial success in his ongoing "pop music for adults" duo with singer/partner Barbara Gaskin, but never received the cred he deserved as an innovative keyboard equivalent of Holdsworth. Without in any way disparaging Pastorius, whose relatively short career certainly reflected the line from Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner
, "The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long," Berlin has always deserved far more recognition than he garnered, as a bassist certainly in the same virtuosic echelon as electric bassists including Pastorius, Stanley Clarke
, Marcus Miller
and, more recently, Victor Wooten
Not that Berlin hasn't achieved plenty. In the years since his emergence with Bruford, the bassist has racked up a sizeable discography with artists ranging, on the higher profile front, from Holdsworth and Dixie Dregs
keyboardist T. Lavitz
to Herbie Mann, Mahavishnu Orchestra
drummer Billy Cobham
and guitarist Larry Coryell
...even an unexpected reunion with Bruford in the almost-Yes group, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, where Berlin replaced the group's taken-ill studio album bassist, Tony Levin
, for the part of tour documented on An Evening of Yes Music Plus
(Fragile, 1993). Equally as important in a time when too few musicians pay it forward, Berlin has emerged as an esteemed educator, in particular with his innovative use of one-directional Vimeo instructional sessions and, utilizing the Zoom videoconferencing platform, bi-directional sessions where the bassist makes it possible to bring students into shared conversations from a distance through a real-time video and voice platform.
Berlin has also released a series of fine solo albums over the years, including Aneurhythms
(M.A.J., 2007), more recently, Low Standards
(Random Act, 2013)...and, particularly relevant to this review, Pump It!
(Passport Jazz, 1986), where the bassist first premiered "Joe Frazier Round 2," featuring guitarist Frank Gambale
, keyboardist Ron Reinhardt
and drummer Tris Imboden
Like any musician of significance, Berlin has certainly matured and further evolved an inimitable approach to his instrument over the decades. Still, a recent box set reissue of Bruford's entire discography (including a previously unreleased live recording and some off-the-floor cassette work tapes for the not-to-be-realized fourth studio album), Seems Like a Lifetime Ago
(Gonzo Multimedia, 2017), relit a spotlight on Berlin and his remarkable work with this group, long considered by many progressive rock fans to be a high point during the genre's '70s heyday. With Seems Like a Lifetime Ago
's initial print run selling out so fast in pre-order that a second one had to be added just a couple months later, it's clear that the group's reputation has long outlived its actual lifespan...and for many good reasons.
So, with "Joe Frazier" back again as one of Bruford's high watermarks, the Special 30th Anniversary Limited Edition
CD single release of Joe Frazier Round 3
couldn't come at a better time. In addition to the 2018 written/arranged title track, Berlin includes (as the single's "b-side") a remastered version of Pump It!
's "Joe Frazier Round 2."
While running well over a minute longer than the original "Joe Frazier," the six-minute-plus "Round 2" stays a little closer to the earlier version's form, though its funkier intro comes as something of a surprise...or does it? Between its sonorous, sinewy theme and Berlin's sixteenth-note runs, it harkens back to the original in overall form, though there are plenty of differences as well, including added harmonies over the song's many themes, both from Berlin and Gambale. The familiar second-section theme leads to Berlin's even more mind-boggling solo, demonstrating both an expanded vocabulary and light speed fluidity, with Gambale actually managing to up the ante with a following scorcher of a solo that takes full advantage of Berlin's pedal tone bass line and sophisticated keyboard voicings.
An impressive electric piano solo from Reinhardt leads to the keyboardist's synth extrapolations over the same pedal tone/harmonic changes that bolstered Gambale's solo. A closing section, initially built over a high-velocity funk groove, builds to a blended line from Berlin and Reinhardt that suddenly stops with a shouted "HUH!!" that would have done James Brown
proud, before resuming with the initial theme and a perfect ending where the final line is passed, baton-like, from Berlin to Reinhardt to Gambale, before "Joe Frazier Round 2" comes to a most satisfying conclusion.
Berlin takes far more compositional liberties with the nearly eight-minute "Joe Frazier Round 3," which largely features Berlin on both electric bass and keyboards, with additional keys from David Sancious
, Bruce Springsteen
), and on whose Just As I Thought
(Arista, 1979) Berlin appeared. A suitably Holdsworthian solo comes via Steve Vai
, into which the renowned guitarist nevertheless injects his own high octane musical personality. Tom Hemby provides some rhythm guitar and Gabriela Sinagra some percussion, but what really defines "Round 3," nearly as much as Berlin's own contributions, is drummer Keith Carlock
, Wayne Krantz
, James Taylor
), whose distinctive kit sound and approach adds a more modernistic bent to the track's underlying grooves.
If anything, Berlin stretches out the main ideas from the original "Joe Frazier" even further, turning "Round 3" into an episodic, more decidedly jazz-centric re-imagining. Still, the key components of the original remain, in particular the initial, knotty bass theme (though it takes its time to appear), where Carlock's heavy ride cymbal and tart snare drum give it an entirely different complexion...as does Berlin's injection of a surprising legato moment that plays temporal sleight of hand. If Berlin's technique was already beyond formidable when he was recruited by Bruford in 1977, he's come far, far further in the decades that have passed, as he opens the track with some unexpected stereo-panned bass harmonics that make clear something different really is
Berlin has never been shy about how important the late bassist Jack Bruce
was in his early, formative years; he is, in fact, in the process of finishing Jack Songs : An All-Star Tribute to Jack Bruce
, showcasing newly arranged versions of memorable songs written by Bruce over the course of his career. Berlin quickly outpaced the Cream
, John Mayall
and Tony Williams
bassistwho, in addition to a busy career guesting with others, released a number of classic solo recordings, including the song-based Songs for a Tailor
(Polydor, 1969) and more jazz-driven Things We Like
(Polydor, 1970)both in instrumental dexterity and harmonic initricacies. But listening to both "Rounds" of "Joe Frazier" included on this CD single, it's hard not to feel Bruce's influence still, most notably in Berlin's truly mighty, thunderous tone, which is given even greater latitude on "Round 3" through his use of various effects and techniques more typically associated with electric guitar.
But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to this: staggeringly virtuosic instrumental acumen and an impressive compositional mindset, taking already sophisticated ideas and, with an ear to greater expansion, rendering them even more refined, more detailed and more labyrinthine in their innate complexities. All this while, at the same time, grooving like a mo'fo.'
And that, at the end of the day, is an important distinction that needs be taken from Berlin's Special 30th Anniversary Limited Edition
CD single release of Joe Frazier Round 3
, available in CD, 12" vinyl and digital formats (as well as "Music Minus" variants for aspiring bassists, drummers, guitarists and keyboardists): for all its complex inner workings, high-minded harmonies and instrumental mastery, Berlin still knows how to groove...and hard
. It's been roughly 30 years since "Joe Frazier Round 2," and 42 years since the original "Joe Frazier" appeared on Bruford's Gradually Going Tornado
, but through all that time Berlin has been here, painstakingly evolving his own instrumental voice and compositional acumen.
But with "Joe Frazier" representing one of his most beloved compositions, Berlin's decision, perhaps on the heels of the Bruford Seems Like a Lifetime Ago
box, to add an even broader, deeper and richer "Round 3" to the more faithful (but still further developed) "Round 2" will hopefully bring back some of those fans who'd deserted him after Bruford. Between the bassist's work with others and his own slowly growing discography as a leader, it's clear that this is a musician who most definitely belongs in the "should have been" more known category. And as Berlin enters the second half of his sixties, there's still plenty time enough to make it happen.
Joe Frazier Round 3; Joe Frazier Round 2.
Jeff Berlin: bass, keyboards (2); Keith Carlock: drums (1); Steve Vai: guitar solo (1); David Sancious: additional keyboards (1); Tom Hemby: rhythm guitar (1); Gabriela Sinagra: percussion (1); Tris Imboden: drums (2); Ron Reinhardt: keyboards (2); Frank Gambale: guitars (2).