Peter Bernstein Trio: Live at Smoke

John Kelman By

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Getting the chance to watch a player always reveals as much, if not more, than simply listening, and in that regard Live at Smoke is not just educational; it
Peter Bernstein Trio
Live at Smoke
Mel Bay Records MB20961DVD

Since the early 1990s, guitarist Peter Bernstein, organist Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart have clocked a lot of musical time together. Recording and gigging as the Peter Bernstein Trio, the Larry Goldings Trio, or the Bill Stewart Trio as the situation demands, they've evolved the kind of chemistry that can only come from a longstanding and purely cooperative relationship. With the only real difference between the three monikers is whose writing they emphasize, the trio has fashioned a sound that's a heady evolution of the kind of soulful jazz for which the late Jimmy Smith was renowned, albeit with a stronger modernistic bent and progressive sense of swing—perhaps best realized on 2002's Sweet Science, released under Goldings' name.

Live at Smoke finds the trio—this time under Bernstein's aegis—working their way through a ninety-minute, eight-song programme in the diminutive New York club. It must have been a challenging shoot—the trio look as though they're virtually sitting on top of each other on the small stage and, with heads popping up at the bottom of the screen and waitresses grabbing attention away as they walk across the camera's line of sight, it begs the question as to whether it might not have been a better idea to find a more film-friendly venue.

Still, the sound is terrific, the performance extremely compelling and—given this DVD is released under Mel Bay Records, whose focus is on guitar—there are plenty of great close-ups of Bernstein in action, something sure to give guitarists plenty to chew on. Watching Bernstein, in fact, demonstrates just how much the physical component of playing an instrument has to do with the final result.

You can put the same guitar and amp combination in the hands of two guitarists, ask them to play the same phrase, and the result will be completely different. It's more than just the subtle nuances that will find, say, one player a little more relaxed and behind the beat than the other; it's equally about purely physical components like shape and density of the fingers, strength of pressure on the neck, attack on the strings and more. Getting the chance to watch a player always reveals as much, if not more, than simply listening, and in that regard Live at Smoke is not just educational; it's inspirational.

The material ranges from Bernstein compositions including the lightly funky "Dragonfly, the 5/4 swinger "Jive Coffee and the more overtly-soulful "Bobblehead, to well-known standards including the Rodgers and Hart ballad, "Spring is Here and a burning reading of Irving Berlin's "Putting on the Ritz, with a complex series of starts and stops running through the familiar theme. Throughout, Bernstein and Goldings' ability to develop extended solos that never tire or run out of ideas is a real treat. Stewart plays a generally more supportive role, but he's a player whose flexibility and ability to groove strongly without being overbearing has made him first call for artists including saxophonist Chris Potter and guitarists John Scofield and Pat Metheny.

Still, while no one person stands out in the trio—they all stand out—given the camera time devoted to Bernstein, one can't help but understand exactly how his touch—the way he slides into a note, the way he builds phrases that comfortably run the full range of the instrument without sounding disjointed or inelegant, the way he hangs on to a note and gives it weight—translates directly into his sound. The kind of warm hollowbody electric tone he favours may not be particularly innovative, but it's the combination of all these elements that ultimately give him his distinctive sound.

But whatever name it goes by, what gives this trio legs is its nuanced intuition. These players rarely go for the obvious kind of "big moment statements to demonstrate how in tune they are; instead, the interaction is a subtle constant running throughout the set, often felt more than heard.

While the low-tech appearance of Live at Smoke reflects a lower budget than performance videos by bigger artists, it's no less captivating a watch—perhaps most for guitarists, but equally for anyone wanting to experience a rare simpatico. Engaging in an accessible way that, in its honesty and unassuming nature, is as real a performance as you're likely to get, Live at Smoke is required viewing for anyone wanting to understand the true importance of long-term musical relationships.

Personnel: Peter Bernstein: guitar; Larry Goldings: organ; Bill Stewart: drums.

Track Listing: Dragonfly; Jive Coffee; Spring is Here; Puttin' on the Ritz; Bobblehead; I Should Care; The Acrobat; Night Mist Blues. Total time: 89 minutes.


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