Interview with JEFF BERLIN

June 2010

berlin3Much can be said about Jeff Berlin, and it’s all been said already. The bass player of note – all right, of many notes – he heard praises from such four-string maestros as Jaco Pastorius and Geddy Lee, to name but two, and his music often bridges their realms of jazz and rock. What is rarely mentioned, as strange as it may seem, amongst all the tech talk is the humaneness of Jeff’s style. Always an inventive player, as opposed to simple vurtuoso, Berlin’s last record, “High Standards“, swings the bassist back to the classics penned by the likes of Miles and Dizzy and is arguably his more emotional album of all. Full circle, then?

– Jeff, with “High Standards” you got much closer to classic jazz than on your previous albums. Did it feel like a homecoming, when you were recording it, or was it a challenge?

This recording was very easy for me because my teen age and early twenties involved my playing and soloing on jazz standards after I quit playing the violin… Most Jewish boys with a talent for music end up playing the violin! Since the early Seventies, I have been playing standards with many different people. When I recorded “High Standards”, I had already been playing some of these tunes for years. I wanted to record music where my bass playing would really sound special, and the best thing at the time of the recording to accomplish this was to record standard tunes. I think that these solos are some of the best I ever recorded.

– How much on the CD is improvised or you charted out everything before the sessions?

Almost nothing that you hear on the CD is charted out. Danny Gottlieb, Richard Drexler and I have played together so much that we can instantly move into different ideas of playing, but as a band. You can hear this on a lot of this recording. We would make eye contact and mouth instructions to each other while we recorded. For example, Richard might mouth the words, “Out of time”, as he did on “Solar”. We didn’t know that we were going to play like that until Richard gave us this instruction at the very moment that the music was being recorded.

– Many pieces on this record are mostly known as played on brass, not strings or piano. Was it one of the criteria you picked them by?

Not because these tunes were played by brass instruments, but because these songs were melodic and had interesting chord changes on them. Lately, I’ve been finding all kinds of new things to play, which I guess is my reward for having practiced so diligently for so many years. For this reasons, I wanted to record a CD that actually might not have any precedence in music, which is a bass player leading a piano jazz trio playing melodies and soloing as if the bass player was a saxophonist. I got quite good at doing this on a bass guitar.

– Having played with Tony Williams and Allan Holdsworth you said you didn’t like the trio format. But here you are, with Danny Gottlieb and Richard Drexler. What made you change your mind?

Nothing, actually! I actually meant that at that time, I didn’t wish to play in a guitar trio. On “High Standards” I’m mostly playing with a piano trio. It would take special guitarists to make me feel comfortable in a trio setting, someone like John Scofield or Pat Metheny. But a piano covers so much harmony that whatever I play will have some meaning because there are no gaps in the chord sounds. I love playing with guitar, but I really love playing with piano. Actually, playing on “Nardis” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” were guitar-type trios because I sort of played guitar parts while Richard Drexler played the acoustic bass down low. Our two basses worked out beautifully together!

– Electric bass and the upright one: is it an interesting combination for you to explore? Does it show the bottom end isn’t as monolithic as many see it?

It would be monolithic if the two bass players didn’t keep out of each other’s octave range. Playing with an upright works great with me because I can get a different tone than the upright bass produces. I’ve listened to enough guitar trios in my life to figure out that the separation of the two instruments in tone and octave displacement would make for a great musical interaction between my bass and an acoustic instrument. When I play with an acoustic bass player, he needs to function in a more traditional manner while I need to play differently, more unlike a bass guitar. I had to learn how to play my instrument differently because of the acoustic bass accompaniment, so this works out wonderfully for me.

– How difficult, or easy, it was to sometimes take a back seat on your own, solo album to let your friends shine and go for the overall ensemble approach?

It was super easy to let the other guys sometimes take the lead. How many bass solos can one listen to before they turn off the music? When you play with great players, you want to hear them play. Records are much more balanced this way. Even Tony Bennett lets his pianist and his guitar player take solos.

– You’re mostly known as a fusion player. What did fascinate you in the genre in the first place?

I was lucky to come along in music at the exact time that fusion was in its most popular phase. I was a rocker who became a jazzer and I found myself involved with musicians who blended the two idioms, hence the name “fusion”! Pat Metheny once said that he didn’t like the word, but it works OK for me. But interestingly, I don’t really prefer to play fusion any more. I would rather play a purer music, a purer form of rock or jazz or funk. I’ve steered clear of jazz fusion for some time now.

– One of your first professional groups was with Carmine Appice, a heavy-weight drummer – well, at least before his stint with Rod Stewart. What kind of band it was? A jazzy one?

No! It was a rock band! My roots are rock and even now, I can play any BEATLES song on the spot. CREAM? Hendrix? No problem! On one of my last trips to Israel, I hung out with a fellow named Lev Gregorian who was a bass player. One day I was over at his house and he and I started to sing BEATLES songs with Lev playing piano and me on guitar. Rock is in my DNA, even if the dominant gene at this moment is in jazz.

berlin1– How did you get involved with Patrick Moraz‘s “Story Of i”? Were you aware of his work with YES at the time?

No! All that I knew was that he was the replacement for Rick Wakeman in YES. Patrick was going to record his solo record and guitarist Ray Gomez recommended me to be the bassist. I had just left music school and I was asked to tour with guitarist Pat Martino in the summer of 1975. After his tour ended, I went to Switzerland to record with Patrick and Alphonse Mouzon. This was the very first recording that I ever did and I am still grateful that Patrick hired me, a total unknown, to play bass for him. He could have hired anybody he wished to.

– Another ex-YES man you worked with was Bill Bruford, and one of the tracks you did together was his “Beelzebub”. Did Bill show you the early version of it, with John Wetton on bass?

No. In fact, until you mentioned it, I had no idea that there was another version.

– Joining ABWH at quite a short notice: was that a desire to help out Bruford, an interesting endeavor or, sorry, a chance to snatch a quick dollar?

Making a dollar is a great thing, by the way! This is why they call it the music “business”! I actually got the YES gig due to Steve Howe bringing my name up, not Bill. Their bass player got sick and I was called to replace him for the remainder of their U.S. tour. Playing with those guys was a fun gig. For a short time, I was a rock star and got my first taste of what famous rock bands probably take for granted, first class treatment, things that I don’t often get to experience in my jazz career. Also, there is a little bit of folklore about the time that it took me to learn their music, and the story that some know is true. I did learn an entire YES show in three days. I’m a fast learner.

– Mentioning the potential VAN HALEN gig is good for publicity but were you really interested in the band so much as to go and jam with them? By the way, what year was that?

A long time ago, around 1982. I also jammed around that time with RUSH. I was invited to their soundcheck when, while standing on stage, Geddy Lee’s assistant handed me his bass to play. Geddy was playing keyboards, so, for around ten minutes, RUSH was a quartet! We sounded pretty good together. Geddy is rock bass royalty and he is also – as I am – a child of Holocaust survivors. Back to VAN HALEN! I jammed with them at David Lee Roth’s house and it was a lot of fun. I liked those guys and I liked their music. But, they were into things that I preferred not to be involved with. Also, later, Eddie changed his mind about me being in his band because I did something that seemed to offend him. I was hanging out at a VAN HALEN rehearsal, with Michael Anthony on bass, and I had my step-daughter with me. She was around five at the time, and she got tired and asked me to take her home. So in the middle of the rehearsal, I left with her. Around 3 am, Eddie called me and in a very hurt voice, and he asked me, “Was the music so terrible that you had to leave?” I told him that my daughter was tired and I needed to take her home. But, he never forgave me for what he considered to be a slight against him for leaving early.

– Of all the drummers you worked with who would you consider the perfect rhythm section partner?

A couple of nights ago, in Miami, my perfect rhythm section partner was a Venezuelan drummer named Frank Quintero – he actually is a superstar in parts of Latin America as a singer, but I also knew that he was a terrific drummer. A few weeks ago it was Danny Gottlieb. About two months ago it was Peter Erskine. Earlier than that, it was Vinnie Colaiuta. Before this it was Alex Van Halen, Bill Bruford, Harvey Mason, Billy Cobham, Bob Moses, Alex Acuna, Paul Wertico, Adam Nussbaum, and Neil Peart. Plus many many more great drummers whose names I didn’t mention here. Each time that I played a gig with a great drummer, something special always, without fail, happened. In fact, I cannot remember playing with a bad drummer, not for many years. Years ago I came to Israel to do a clinic at the Rimon Music School. While there, I met and played with a fantastic drummer named Eithan Iskowitz. I loved his playing and regarded him as one of the greatest drummers in jazz to come from Israel from the first beat that he played. Another brilliant Israeli drummer is Asaf Sirkus who now lives in London. We clicked on the downbeat. All of these are the perfect rhythm section partner.

– Has bass always been more melodic rather than rhythmic instrument for you?

It is equal for me and it depends on the type of gig that I am playing. We are still in an era where the bass isn’t recognized as a significant instrument, to be used melodically as well as rhythmically. Even music producers worldwide don’t really know what to do with the bass guitar, except to use it in a traditional manner. I have noticed that bassists in rock rarely imitate each other because there is usually little room for them to stand out in the music. The exceptions will be RUSH or the RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS, plus a couple more that I can’t think of right now. But that’s about it in regards to rock bands where the bass player is used as something more than just a provider of the root of the chord.

– One of the most melodic players is Jack Bruce who you – and everybody for that matter, save for Ginger Baker – revere. Would you dare do anything like his “Monkjack” where he doesn’t touch bass at all but plays piano in the organ company of Bernie Worrell?

I can play guitar and keyboards pretty well, but not good enough to consider recording on these instruments, except maybe in selected spots. Speaking of Ginger, I loved his playing with CREAM and I loved it after CREAM as well. He can be a powerful personality, but why not! The man knows himself and what he stands for.

– You never shied away from playing rock. But is there a chance you’ll do a pure album in this genre after pure jazz of “High Standards”?

Maybe, because I love playing rock bass. But, I have two lives, a sideman life and a leader life. As a leader, I thought to leave the incredible rock bass playing to guys like Billy Sheehan or Geddy Lee, and only play rock if I am hired to play rock. Incidentally, I found a great way to enhance my bass tone and make it sound absolutely huge, distorted, but super-clean at the same time, and totally enormous in rock tone. I might record this someday if I ever get hired by a producer to play on a rock CD.

– Did you learn anything new for yourself while teaching the others?

Occasionally! Once I came up with an exercise based on seven different note forms based on the notes of an ascending major scale. I wrote this for a student, but liked it so much that I started to practice the same exercise myself. I have a million special exercises and musical principles to practice and I teach them at The Players School of Music. I was a student of the greatest music teacher who ever lived, named Charlie Banacos. He was my teacher on and off for thirty years and his concepts are among the things that I teach at the school.

berlin2– How do you manage to combine the academic approach to the music with such a sensual playing? More so, would you agree that technique – as, say, with guitar shredders – takes away from the feeling?

If I sometimes play sensually, it is because I feel the music this way! Also, having technique doesn’t take away from having feeling when you play music. Relying on your technique over musical things might do this. But, in general, everybody plays with feeling! In fact, I can’t remember hearing a musician who didn’t put some feeling into their performance every time that they played! Did you ever hear a teenage rock band who didn’t play with feeling? Some of these guys can’t play a note, but they do it with feeling. Everybody means it when they play.

– Having played with “Who’s Who” in modern music, is there still anyone you’d like to work with and what would you expect from this collaboration?

I want to play with Gary Burton. I love his playing. In rock, I would love to play with THE WHO. I would love to tour with TOWER OF POWER because I could light a real fire in that band. I would love to play with Keith Jarrett but he doesn’t recognize the electric bass as a legitimate instrument which means that we will never play together. Pat Metheny and I would sound fantastic together. I would love to play with Paul McCartney because I can provide something quite unique to his music. Really, there just isn’t enough space on the Internet itself for me to name all the great musicians who I would love to play with.

– With all the praise heaped on you, was there ever a moment you felt you’ve reached your peak? Or were you always intent to keep learning?

Never, for one moment in my life did I think that I hit my peak! I intended to continue improving in music for as long as I lived, and I still keep to this personal promise. I always wanted to improve, to learn something new, to add something special to my bass playing. And I work on this all the time. To this day, nothing matters to me in music except to keep trying to do it better and better. I used to think that the older that I got, the less crazy about music I might become. But, it hasn’t happened this way.

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