There used to be a blogger I worked with a while ago. Anthony Medici, whom I admired for his tenacity, work ethic and integrity. I especially respected him once he started to take on the major jazz publications and took them to task! He also had some harsh words for a local public radio outlet near his hometown (Washington DC area). But he knew his stuff about jazz, and were he still working for the blog, I would ask him to review Jeff Berlin’s new disc, and most likely ask him to do this interview.
It isn’t as though I am totally foreign to Berlin’s work. I was first exposed to Jeff Berlin during his tenure with Bill Bruford’s fusion band, Bruford in the late 70’s. Having recently purchased the “Bruford – Rock Goes To College ” DVD, I was able to watch a young Jeff Berlin toss around riffs with the likes of Bruford, Allan Holdsworth, among others.
Berlin has come a long way…
So far that, to the uninitiated with his solo career, as I (unfortunately am, but soon to be remedied), this is a gutsy move using bass as a lead instrument, especially on such highly regarded tunes as these. Don’t worry, he pulls it off!
So instead of reviewing music I really don’t have the foundation to do, why not let the artist himself do it?!?!
The following is a transcription of an email interview between Mr. Berlin and myself:
Boule: What is the Jeff Berlin story before you broke big?
Berlin: I was a kid from Long Island who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s. I remember it all! I remember the night that I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I remember the moment when Kennedy was shot. I even remember when, as children, we had to cover our heads with coats to protect ourselves from a nuclear blast in case the Russians launched missiles at us during the Cuban missile crisis.
Boule: Ah, fond memories of “Duck And Cover”. All of our therapists are making tons of money off that one… What first got you interested in music in general (as a non-participant)?
Berlin: My father used to play records of opera, symphonies, music like this. He loved that music. Plus, he studied operatic singing. This kind of music was going on in my house since the day that I was born. I used to mimic singing Italian songs when I was two years old. I think that there is a tape floating around with me doing this.
Boule: I don’t know if I would admit that, but in my own biography for this blog, I confessed to something similar. I wonder if that is like a coming of age for all musicians? You have to go through the “pots and pans” and “cigar-box” guitar phase of paying your dues?
Berlin: Certainly all future musicians played on pots and pans, or strummed on brooms pretending that they were guitars. In my case, I faked playing bass on a yardstick that my mother had hanging in the closet. The look of it was similar to Paul McCartney’s bass neck in the movie “Help”, and I used each inch as a fret. It was my first experience of playing “air guitar” and I did it back in 1966 while “playing” along to Beatles records.
Boule: There are some interesting photos on your website, particularly those of you as a youngster holding, what else, a bass. How long have you been playing/studying/teaching?
Berlin: I can still remember the day and time; it was a Saturday morning at 9:30am. This is when, in 1958, I had my very first official music lesson. A teacher came to the house and I began my academic life that morning on a baby violin. When you think from that beginning to right now, I guess that I have been in music for around 52 years.
Boule: The picture I noticed immediately was the one of you posing with a ‘68 Fender Mustang Bass that you said in the caption had a great neck. If you liked that bass anything near as much as I love my ’71 Mustang Guitar, you probably still have it. I love flying across the smaller scale neck! What attracted you to the bass as an instrument?
Berlin: It was a combination of admiration for Paul McCartney and sheer laziness. I was coming out of years of conservatory-style violin training, and, to be honest, I was tired of it. There’s a scene in The Beatles movie “Help” where I think that they were singing, “The Night Before”. There was a camera angle on McCartney’s bass neck while he swung the neck around a little bit. I was knocked out with this image, and, from what I saw, (and also because the bass had the same strings as a violin does, just tuned in 4ths) I wanted to be a bass player from that moment on. I thought that playing a bass had to be simpler than playing the violin music that I had been playing for some years.
Boule: Just by hearing some of the lines you’ve let go, I can tell you made up for that “laziness” with some intense study. I can’t recall you playing anything “simple”. I also can’t tell you how many other career bass players list McCartney and that first appearance on Sullivan as their “inspirational” moment. So who, beyond McCartney, were your influences early-on?
Berlin: I heard all the guys from the 60’s rock scene. But my number one bass influence was Jack Bruce. He is the first virtuoso on electric bass, the very first guy to NOT play the instrument in what might be considered a “normal” manner. His ear for harmony and his curiosity about using the bass in a non-bass manner are the things that influenced me to take the path on bass that I took.
Boule: How do you get that distinctive bass tone?
Berlin: A musician becomes what he becomes by constantly evolving. Right now, I have evolved into Markbass and I plan to never leave. Nothing ever came close to the awesome bass tone that I get from those 15 inch combos. These are stock amplifier with the tweeters removed ( I don’t like tweeters). As a gesture to me, Markbass’ boss, Marco Devirgiliis named the amps after me, but I really didn’t do anything innovative to them. I just fell head over heals in love with them!
I also have a chorus pedal that I have been using for almost 20 years. To make a long story short, the company that builds this pedal weren’t exactly nice with me. So, in my occasionally juvenile manner, I took WhiteOut and painted over their name on the pedal. For years I have never mentioned their name in any interview that I have ever done. I cost those people thousands of dollars because of the impolite way that they treated me.
Boule: It’s good to know that instrument manufacturers treat established musicians the same way they treat us weekend warriors. I have similar experiences with certain manufacturers and certain distributors. One would think in an economy like this, ill-mannered sales and contact people would be replaced by someone with a more, shall we say, “grateful to have a job at all” attitude. Oft times we are forced to adopt unfavorable behaviors when faced with the wounded animal we call the music industry (and that includes instrument manufacturers and instrument retail outlets, I’ll get off my soapbox now). Have you any particularly favorite guitars?
Berlin: I only own one bass guitar. My son commandeered my other instruments, and frankly he can have them all. I only play one bass and I am happy with this. It is the Jeff Berlin model built by Dean Guitars because the neck is to die for, the tone is fabulous and it is passive and four strings, both situations that suit me well.
Boule: So you aren’t eager to play 5 or 6 strings basses?
Berlin: No! I’ve never felt that one sounded better on an instrument that had more strings. But I always believed that one sounded better if they knew more about music instead of having more strings to play.
Boule: Least favorite guitars you have used?
Berlin: There are a few instruments that aren’t very player-friendly. But, no need to mention their names.
Boule: But again, it is good to know that we ALL get the occasional “lemon”. I feel it’s my duty to warn off burgeoning musicians from equipment they would be better-off not to spent money on. What is your most amusing “road warrior” tale? (For example; having freshly joined Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, bassist Kasim Sulton was astounded to find young girls sleeping outside his hotel room door…)
Berlin: Kasim’s story reminded me of something that just happened in Bangkok, Thailand last October. Scott Henderson, Dennis Chambers and I were on the road touring. While in Bangkok, a friend of Scott’s invited Scott and me out to dinner…. In a brothel! We got picked up and were driven to what looked like a small palace. It was really a gorgeous building, not typical in any way in what one might envision a place like this to look like. This building belonged in Las Vegas!
We pulled up front and a uniformed doorman opened our car door! We were escorted into a palatial room, ornate, with art work, little sections to sit and even a stage where a Las Vegas show was happening with singers, dancers, and a live band. Some of the most astonishing beautiful women were there, I mean, just breathtaking.” Some girls came over to hang with us, while we were served a really sumptuous meal. Then, the band invited us to sit in with them. So we played, getting a great ovation from the young ladies who worked there and some of the patrons who were also hanging around. I’ll stop the story here, but, all in all, I can honestly say that, until that night, I never had an opportunity to play bass in a house of ill repute! For Scott and me, it definitely was a first!
Boule: Sulton’s story also maintained a PG rating as he was referring to this in a very “mock glamorous” context. We’re gonna stay away from the “TMI” zone. Inversely, what is your least memorable “road warrior” tale?
Berlin: I worked with a guy who played with us in Germany. One afternoon, he got stuck in the elevator for about 30 seconds. He didn’t press the right button but still blamed the elevator problem on the hotel. When he got out, he stormed over to the desk to complain, but the desk clerk didn’t seem that concerned about what happened. This guy was fuming all afternoon and even into the gig itself.
When we got back to the hotel, he exploded! He went to the front desk where a new group of hotel people were working the night shift. He started to yell that he got stuck in the mother ******* elevator earlier in the afternoon. My manager heard this and totally blew up at the guy. He yelled that he was a guest in his country and that he should behave. So this event really put me off with working with this guy again.
Boule: Well that’s a textbook definition of overreacting. People like to file it under temperamental artist. But some ‘temperamental artists” ARE impossible to work with… Are there any up-and-coming players or established players you admire today?
Berlin: The most gifted bass player in the world, in fact, the fastest who ever lived, is Hadrien Feraud. He is as fast as John McLaughlin on guitar! And baby THAT is fast!
Boule: Excellent! I have someone to research, new music for my ears. Thanks! What music are you currently listening to?
Berlin: I wander in interest. Beethoven is always around! Ravel, Chopin, and I’ve been listening a lot to opera. I can’t shake my years in classical music. It is in my cells. Every night I fall asleep listening to Keith Jarrett. His playing just awes me, the pure improviser. There aren’t many like him in the world, except maybe Gary Burton.
Boule: Yeah, that’s some pretty exceptional DNA there. What is your involvement with music education?
Berlin: I am deeply involved with music education to the point where I have alienated some people who don’t like what I say. Much of music education is built upon musical nonsense. The problem is that there are a lot of teachers and schools who have invested time to teach these nonsensical principles such as paying to learn how to perform or practice with metronomes. I tell people to ignore these limited methods of learning and, instead, seek out teachers or schools where only music is taught. For this, some pseudo-instructors get very mad at me. And well they should! I am upsetting their applecart, advising people to aim higher when paying for a musical education!
Boule: I was turned off to musical education in the 6th grade by one of those very instructors of whom you speak. I had suspected this was a wider spread problem than the New Jersey public school system in the ‘70’s. My course of action was then to self-teach. But again, that usurps the music education racket that you spoke of. Tony Levin also mentions being disenfranchised with education as he found himself daydreaming in class and not playing the notes with proper articulation (sliding fingers across the strings). The conductor stopped the piece at Levin’s expense by yelling at him and telling him to get out if he wants to play rock and roll.
All the more reason to support the arts in public schools in these United States.
Can this sort of proper education be found at The Players School of Music in Clearwater, Florida?
Berlin: Yes! I am proud to say that I know of no other school anywhere in the world like The Player School of Music. Beginners become fine players here and good players become great. Some people own instruments for 20 years and don’t know how to play them. But at my school, EVERYBODY learns how to play better, without exception because mistakes are allowed in practice, and practicing out of time is the norm. If you practice “the Good Stuff” then you will get better, faster than some guys or slower than others. The thing is you WILL get better. You just have to practice what we give you, which can be a simple as a couple of notes at the beginning. That’s it! If you do the work that you get, you will improve 100% guaranteed. I don’t know of any school that can make the same claim.
Boule: This is a haughty claim indeed. But I can believe it, even Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft courses have dismissed students it found “non-constructive” to the course. Are your memories of your time with Bill Bruford good ones or otherwise?
Berlin: They were great, just wonderful! Bill is a good friend, and (to use the cliché) we made beautiful music together. The hang was fun, the music was interesting, the other guys in the band were super-fun guys to tour and record with. There just weren’t any bad memories about hanging with Bill and Allan and John and Dave.
Boule: Well I can say, on behalf of myself and at least one of my webmasters, we think THAT band gave us some incredible music, thank you.
When Bruford left King Crimson to pursue his true calling, innovative electronic jazz and then more conventional jazz bands, were you in touch with him at the time, did you offer any advice to the one direction or other?
Berlin: The only advice that I ever offered Bill was to swing harder, even in the rock thing. This was a lesson that I learned from the great musicians who were tutoring me as I was learning how to play jazz. Bill loved jazz, but still came from an English approach to playing. It sometimes felt more up and down than moving left and right. I suggested that he try to deal with this, and true to his character, he was totally open to the suggestion and worked to embrace this new concept into his already original drumming. But, overall, I got way more from Bill Bruford than he ever got from me.
Boule: I know he changed the way I set up my drum kit. But that was then, let’s talk about your recent work. With your new disc, High Standards, what were your motivations for these song choices?
Berlin: I’ve been playing standard tunes since the 1970’s. Because I am so in love with Keith Jarrett’s playing on those jazz standard CD’s of his, I felt that I ought to try and record something in his area of music. As far as I know, there isn’t a standards CD where an electric bass is the lead instrument. Maybe I’ve done something innovative here.
I will play standards forever. They are too much fun NOT to play. This June, I have a gig in Miami with Othello Molineaux, the steel drummer with Jaco Pastorius’ bands and Frank Quintero, one of Venezuela’s greatest drummers and vocalists. We intend to play standards on the gig because, we all love them so much.
Boule: How rare It is to find someone in the industry who can actually play what he loves. I find it interesting that on at least two of the tracks on High Standards, it is drums, upright bass, and electric bass only. How did you arrive at the idea for this unique line-up?
Berlin: When we used to tour in Europe, we always did a couple of tunes with Richard on upright. We found that our two basses worked beautifully together because our tones were so different. My manner of soloing is unlike what one might expect from a bass player. Because my main influences aren’t bass players, when I solo, I’ve always aimed at tonalities not expected to come from a bass guitar. Therefore, Richard and I have learned not to get in each other’s octave range. Richard is such a brilliant musician; he is amazing at piano and bass, that I couldn’t resist the opportunity to use him on the upright. It works beautifully!
Boule: I reference reading how Fripp had problems with Bruford’s high-hat stealing many of Fripp’s time and hit accents, and at one point forbade him from taking an acoustic high-hat on tour (for the album Three Of A Perfect Pair). How lucky you two were to find that common ground on the same instrument, never mind within the same band or group. But I understand you did not have the same sort of meeting of the minds with the people at Talkbass.com?
Berlin: I was banned for life because I told the moderators there to go and “bleep” themselves. Not my most adult moment to be sure, but there was a reason. For months I offered help and advice to people on that website and while there, I made a lot of new friends. But mixed into the group were a few guys who pushed the boundaries of decent interaction, calling me things, accusing me of things that I didn’t deserve. The moderators didn’t interfere. I’m not made of stone and after a while, it began to make me mad. I started to shoot back and then the moderators warned me to stop. But, after months of ducking shots at my expense with no warning to anyone else, I continued to lob a couple of final comments at the offending Talkbass members and for this I was blocked for two weeks. When I was permitted to come back to the site, I instantly posted a rude response, not my finest moment to be sure, but I had had enough of taking garbage for months!
Boule: After all, what would YOU know about bass? It almost sounds like you were suckered in. So why should they have you contribute anything? What the heck, I implore on Mr. Berlin’s behalf, good blog readers, let’s boycott Talkbass.com right back! Hell, I’ve never heard of Talkbass, so it can’t be that important.
The Internet can be so petty. Unless you are Betty White. NOBODY screws with Betty White.
What excites you most about the prospect of touring this album?
Berlin: Any chance to put on my bass and play is as exciting to me as it has always has been. Playing for me is still, emotional, exciting, and moves me deeply as it always has. My audience has always been great! They are supportive, kind and they love music. We are growing old together, they and I. Plus they are taking their kids along sometimes to listen to us play. The amusing general comment that I hear from these young people at the end of the gigs is that they had no idea that a bass guitar could be played that way.
Boule: Amazing that you aren’t jaded after these 52 years! You really do have an impact that seems to be multi-generational. I have come to find that the only people who don’t think you are the end all, be all of bass players are those who haven’t heard of you. During my recent research for this interview, there have been innocent bystanders in close proximity drawn in by what they heard and saw. I know I exposed somewhere between 5-6 people and all were astonished. Particularly at the solos you exhibited. Will you be doing any improv during your shows?
Berlin: Oh, yes!
Boule: OK, folks, there you go! That’s gonna be reason enough to get tickets for Mr. Berlin’s tour this fall. If you think the CD is awesome (as I do), then you MUST see this live. What’s next for you once you conclude your upcoming tour?
Berlin: Practice and waiting for the phone to ring from some interested guy wishing to hire me. Plus, when I am home, I am with my children, and I always am at The Players School of Music teaching.
Boule: Hopefully teaching students about music and not outdated practices and concepts. We know you have one musical child, any others following in dad’s footsteps?
Berlin: No! Sean is not a musician, except that for about a week or so, when he was 8 years old, he walked around the house listening to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony on a SpongeBob CD player. For some reason, that piece really got to him. But Jason is the real musician. He is always in his room listening, practicing and imitating records that he owns. He plays drums and bass, but I have to admit, he is a way better bassist probably better than a lot of guys (sorry, but I hear him everyday and that boy can play the heck out of a bass guitar). Last week, he taught himself Chick Corea’s tune “Humpty Dumpty” and he is only 17 years old and can’t read a note (much to my regret).
Boule: Gotta get that boy in the Players School! What do you like to do when you’re NOT playing?
Berlin: I just bought a smoker. All of us Southern Boys (I’m actually from New York) love to BBQ. True BBQ is NOT putting meat over hot coals. True BBQ Is smoking meat or chicken. I am totally new at this and I have a lot to learn. But, I watch those BBQ shows like I am watching Avatar for the first time. My eyes are huge!
Boule: You’re preaching to the choir, Mr. Berlin, my best thing to ever happen to me only cooks meats, etc. on the grill from spring to fall (and some winters, ours is on a covered porch). But you are serious business with having a smoker now! Had you not pursued bass as a vocation, what might you have pursued instead?
Berlin: Maybe being a chef! These are creative people, even jazz-like in their skills sometimes. I admire great cooks very much and I wish that I knew 1% of what some of these talented people know.
Boule: Then I won’t mention how much I think ‘Naked Chef’ Jaime Oliver looks like a young Bill Bruford…
Berlin: Funny. I used to think the very same thing!
Boule: Free Pass – Topic/issue/item of your personal concern, commitment, or commentary?
Berlin: I would like Paul McCartney to hire me for his band. I am a very good keyboard player and a very good guitarist and I can play lots of his tunes and other Beatle tunes on these instruments. However, he needs singers in his band, and I sing like Robert Strauss did in Stalag 17 so I probably won’t get the call.
Boule: (I heard Mr. Berlin’s vocals on the Bruford albums that Annette Peacock did not sing on. I assure you, this is a exaggerated for comedic effect.) Besides, I hear Ringo is much more fun to tour with. And the last question is of course, do you still stubbornly insisting on using Leo Quan Badass Bass Brdges? We know the answer is yes, but we wanna know WHY?
Berlin: Glen Quan, the inventor of the Leo Quan Badass Bass Bridge is single handedly responsible for the entire replacement parts industry. Back in the 1970’s guys like Seymour Duncan and Bill Bartolini were learning from Glen. In fact, the entire NAMM show is, in part, a legacy of the contribution that Glen provided to the music industry, and yet, (to quote Hyman Roth in Godfather II) “There isn’t even a plaque or a signpost or a statue of him in that town!” People don’t remember him, which is a crying shame! Another visionary lost in history! His bridge was the best addition to any bass guitar that I have ever owned since 1975, when he first put one into my bass when I passed through San Francisco playing in Pat Martino’s band. I’ve never played a bass without one since that time.
I want to thank Mr. Berlin for his time and attention to this interview. I hope to see him when he appears around the area this fall. Those of you who enjoy jazz NEED to pick up his new CD High Standards which you can get at your local indie record store.
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