After four decades, jazz fusion legend Jeff Berlin is composing, playing and educating with as much passion as ever. Mike Flynn meets the great man and learns why jazz theory will make you a better bassist – and human being.
Since he first emerged in the 1970s as a powerful virtuoso presence on the electric bass, Jeff Berlin has worked with a who’s who of pre-eminent musicians, including jazz icons Tony Williams, Allan Holdsworth, Gil Evans, Toots Thielemans, Al Di Meola, George Benson, Larry Coryell, Bob James, Dave Liebman and the Brecker Brothers among many, many others. He’s also worked with maverick genius Frank Zappa, famously turned down an offer to join Van Halen, and forged a strong solo recording and performing career too, with many fine bass-led recordings to his name, including his latest outing, Low Standards. Having attended the Berklee School of Music (before it became a ‘College’) in the 1970s, he’s had a long-standing involvement in the music education world.
Ahead of his appearance at the London Bass Guitar Show last March, Jeff made a visit to London in the heavy-hitting company of top fusion blues guitar-slinger Scott Henderson and jazz-funk drum legend Dennis Chambers. The gig took place at the mystical Camden market venue Shaka Zulu, a vividly decorated African restaurant-cum-live venue, bedecked with imposing statues and intricate carvings from floor to ceiling. The gig itself was fiery, with all three musicians effortlessly combining on jazz, funk, rock and fusion classics by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Weather Report and Wayne Shorter, plus a slamming take on the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ and Sly Stone’s ‘If You Want Me To Stay’. It was a pertinent reminder that for all of Berlin’s willingness to debate the fundamentals of music education and indeed, how to play it, he’s a masterful band member and bassist at the top of his game.
When BGM meets Jeff, his band have flown in from Vienna that morning after a late-night finish at their gig there – as a result, they’ve had little or no sleep. In spite of this, when we sit down with Jeff before the gig to discuss all matters musical, he is full of smiles, even quipping his favourite Peter Sellers lines from the classic Pink Panther films. “Does your dog bite?” he says in a perfectly Sellersian French accent. “No,” he continues. “Ow! Your dog bit me! Oh, but that’s not my dog…!” He completes the punchline with a huge laugh that is completely infectious. Can this be the same Jeff Berlin who gets so many people riled up in endless internet debates? Surely not…
Jeff is known as one of the pre-eminent electric bassists in jazz – a genre more associated with upright/acoustic bass – yet he’s always played electric, from the start of his career. Why is learning jazz so important for a bassist? “Because jazz is the only music that includes the harmony and the rhythm and the melodic possibilities that exist in all music, that’s the reason,” he says emphatically. “When people learn jazz, they are learning where to put their fingers on an instrument, where the harmony is. Jazz is the best formula because academically it is perfect – you can put your fingers down for these notes for these specific reasons, and then you’ll notice later that this chord you’ve been practising is also in the latest pop song. There’s a real transitional reality in what you practise. The more music that you practise, the more that music becomes a part of your playing. What you study isn’t directly applicable to your music because what you practise academically isn’t practised to be used literally. But it becomes natural for you to play in musical ways because you’ve learned in factual ways. And if you can separate the academic from the art, then jazz for me is an art.”
Berlin’s concern for how music is taught comes across rather like a concerned father who doesn’t want to see his children head down an educational dead end. “My message is only to those people who financially invest and expect a return – that’s my message,” he explains. “If anyone avoids the financial end of it and they are on their own, then they are entitled to pursue any area they want – that’s literally it. It’s based on finance, because finance demands a return for your investment – and that’s when I say that people who pay for a music education in any school, or with any teacher, no matter their reputation, aren’t getting what they are investing in – unless music, not function, is being taught.”
The foundations of Berlin’s own musical abilities began when he was a violinist, studying in conservatoires as a child. Yet when he took up the bass guitar and headed to Berklee in the 1970s it was at the dawn of the electric jazz golden era which, post-Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, would see the rise of Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever. Does he think the 1970s were a better time to be learning and making music? “My hardcore vision of bass and music was born, not in the time I spent in the conservatoires learning violin as a kid, but from my experiences at Berklee School of Music – not College of Music – that I attended in 1972 onward.”
He continues: “When I was there it was entirely, and completely, 100% based on academic and jazz instruction. I came in with an electric bass and a couple of the teachers scoffed at me, because they were upright purists in teaching, but I didn’t mind their scoffing at my choice of instrument. Even as a kid I understood the focus on supporting your credo in regards to an instrument that you believe in. My instrument wasn’t really regarded as a significant jazz instrument – as this was pre-Jaco, Stanley Clarke had barely arrived, and Jack Bruce was [regarded as] a rock bass player – but when I went to Berklee, it was entirely functioning under music principles. When I went there, John Scofield was my classmate, Mike Stern was my classmate, Gary Burton was my teacher. I studied and played with Pat Metheny; Vinnie Colaiuta, John Robinson and Steve Smith were there studying drums. Bill Frisell was there, Neil Stubenhaus, one of Los Angeles’ biggest studio bass players was there, and Abe Laboriel had just left. Berklee was a non-ending source of academic methods that were taught to players, some of whom are recognised as the best players in the world.”
While he’s been outspoken about how he sees the current state of music education, Jeff says he always saw the greatest players he ever worked with relentlessly pushing themselves through constant practice. “I’ve always played with guys who never sat still, it was all around me,” he says. “After the Berklee era of the insanely fanatical music student and the 100% ‘dedicated to music’ Music School, I was around the same philosophy in those players. Michael Brecker – who passed away a while ago – Mike never stopped practising, Randy Brecker never stopped practising. I was in New York with Steve Gadd and he played and practised, they all did. I was raised by musicians that guided me and put me on this path, so what I learned from each of them is something that made me what I am today.”
This last sentiment sparks a slightly more confessional tack, hinting at the highly competitive musical environment of the time. “I never had a good groove, because I always wanted to play fast and play a lot of notes – which instantly turned off most people from using me,” he says. “Once that little light went off in my head, I went to groove, something that I never studied but simply focused on, because out of a pragmatic manner I wanted to play and I wanted to work. All I wanted to do was play like Brecker on the bass – which is an impossibility – but if I aimed at it from about 85 or 90 degrees, I probably hit it about 30. That was significant to me, but it guided me to get better and better as a bass player – although each group and musician guided me.”
Jeff name-checks several iconic musicians who were all self-taught: “Allan Holdsworth is an individual voice, a self-taught guy who never pretended to be otherwise: the Van Halens are self-taught guys who never pretended to be otherwise. Toots Thielemans – self-taught guy, but also a self-taught, jazz-focused guy because when he came up everyone was studying jazz in Belgium and he became part of that clique of musicians who were dedicated to music.”
He also has first-hand experience of two contrasting latter-day musical geniuses, he tells us.
“Frank Zappa was an odd bird, but geniuses often are like that. Look at Jaco Pastorius: an odd bird, clearly a genius, but misunderstood about where his musical ability was developed. He was and he wasn’t – he studied with a hundred different guys, and studied composition and principles of playing and he was also self-taught. The myth that Jaco burst forth playing like that never happened. He worked hard to become what he became. Frank Zappa was an odd, strange, quirky, brilliant guy: he stopped a rehearsal we were doing once to talk about cheese. You know, what do you say? I read his music and I practised it. I used to go to Steve Vai’s house so he could teach me how to subdivide it – because I never saw anything like it.” Jeff sings a complex rhythmic pattern to illustrate his point; “I found that a lot of Frank’s music was written and based on quarter notes. He would play things like 5, 7, 11, 4. How did I know? Because I’m academically trained.”
Continuing to pour all these experiences into his own music, Berlin has just released his latest jazz trio album, Low Standards, which also features acoustic bassist/pianist Richard Drexler and drummer Mike Clark. He’s also one third of Henderson/Berlin/Chambers (HBC) who also has a self-titled album out, and with whom he’s playing tonight as well as touring with at regular intervals. Both projects see Jeff throwing himself wholeheartedly into the music: “Low Standards is the latest in my evolution as an artist – this is my art. It was interesting for me to play the role of a non-bassist while I had an upright bassist play underneath me, hence the title Low Standards, because of the two basses. I cover a whole lot of variety of interactive guide tones and melodies that I don’t think I’ve heard elsewhere – for that reason I’m extremely proud of this CD, and for that reason I think Low Standards almost stands on its own.”
Playing with Scott Henderson and Dennis Chambers is a whole other level of real-time learning experience too, as he explains: “This band provides me a great opportunity for interaction, a lesson in supporting these guys without overdoing it, plus I get to solo – so my solo ability as a bass player has improved almost from the first week of touring with these guys because I’m listening to Scott do this astonishing stuff, and I’m jealous and I say ‘I want to do this stuff too!’ I can search deeply and all my training and experience from all these years starts to come out, I’m influenced, and we listen and respond to each other.”
He goes on: “In this band, I found a completely new way to affect how the guitar player sounds and never get in his way. It’s a growing experience. I’d describe this trio as a fusion version of Cream. Scott, Dennis and I respond in a nanosecond and sometimes strive to attain such high levels of playing that we fall right on our heads, with people watching the crash, and we’re OK with it because it only happens sometimes. Actually, we are free from worrying about mistakes because they usually become a part of the way that we use them to play even beyond our ability of that night’s gig. It’s the most rewarding, freeing experience for me as a bass player because I can play simple or I can play the most complex stuff I’ve ever played –it’s permitted in this band. In this group it’s insane, especially three old codgers like us. We don’t mess around: we’re almost fanatically serious about it. I’ve seen Scott get furious over a so-called ‘bad’ solo, or seen Dennis get dark when ‘that’ drum performance didn’t work for him. For me it’s not a pleasant thing either, but maybe I’ll say ‘I’ll learn from that ridiculous screw up I just did’. It’s fun in the bumpy ride that we have together, and that’s what people will see from us each time we play.
As for his renowned warm, punchy fingerstyle tone, Jeff’s setup is as straightforward and direct as his attitude to making music, especially with his signature Rithimic bass from Cort. He explains that he was pleasantly surprised when he received the first ever Rithimic. “My bass needs have always been simple. My bass just has to feel and sound great. I went to Cort with the suggestion that they consider building a bass that was based on the great concepts of the past – that is, to design a fantastic-feeling neck, a low action and great tone that could fit many styles of music. What amazed me was that Cort built exactly what I was looking for in the very first model that they sent to me to try out. I fully expected that after playing that first instrument that I was going to go back to them and ask for a few corrections. But that didn’t happen. That first model that they sent to me was so perfect, that the only correct was to make the body a little thinner, which they did in the second model that they sent me to try out. This second model is now my main bass guitar. It is the most playable and best-sounding bass guitar I have ever owned. The good news for consumers is that all Rithimics will mirror this prototype that I now own and use. The only differences will be in the fingerboard and a couple of particular parts that I wanted on mine, which would have raised the price too high if they had built the bass for sale with these items. But the factory models that they will sell will have the exact same body, neck, bridge, and pickups as the ones I have on my own Rithimic.”
The instrument’s eye catching half-and-half top-wood design has an interesting origin too: “My wife made a passing comment that the façade of my new bass could be divided into two differently combined woods instead of the montage of different woods that I had on my bass when I was with Dean Guitars. On a whim, she sketched out a couple of roughly drawn bass bodies split into two slightly chaotic sections. I sent these rough drawings to James Suh at Cort, who instantly got the idea that I was conveying. The result was a bass that became one of the most photographed bass guitars at Winter NAMM in 2014. The bass that Cort built simply fascinated people. It almost looked 3D, with a spalted maple mountain range appearing to sit on an orange padauk background. Cort has plans to put out other versions of this design with other woods and I’m excited to see what they come up with.”
Jeff’s bass requirements may be streamlined, but there were some personal custom tweaks he wanted to incorporate when it came to the pickups and bridge, he tells us. “I prefer passive basses, because active basses have a certain artificial sound in them that I never liked. Bartolini built pickups specifically for this instrument. You won’t find those Bartolinis anywhere else. I also made a switch to the Babicz bass bridge when my old bridge company Leo Quan Badass Bass Bridges went out of business. Since 1975, I’ve only used Badass bridges and Bartolini pickups on my basses. But, when Badass closed its doors, I was introduced to the Babicz Bass Bridge and noticed an even higher quality designed bridge, which allowed me to adjust my strings more finely and lock in the changes. Plus, the tone of my bass really sung out by having the Babicz on my bass.”
Completing Berlin’s plug-in-and-play setup are his trusty signature MarkBass combos. The reason he’s with MarkBass is straightforward too: “Tone. Nothing more. Nothing less. Everybody builds great bass amps these days, but it is tone that separates MarkBass from all of them, in my opinion. For a decade, I tried all kinds of amps but never liked the tone enough to accept endorsement offers. I never could bring myself to accept an endorsement offer if I did not fully believe in the product. The tone that comes out of my amp is round, centred and punchy, and my bass notes ring like bells. It sounds sort of compressed although there is no compression built into the amp. I remember playing one note and as I held it out, the note simply sustained and then slowly decayed while maintaining the exact same tone. I have literally never heard any amp sounding remotely as good as my 15-inch combo.”
Whether it’s through his tireless pursuit of musical knowledge, or wanting to share his joy of simply playing music, it’s refreshing to know that no matter how much he’s achieved, Jeff Berlin remains an eternal student. For now he’s entered a new phase, expanding his horizons and continually pushing himself and his bass beyond the limits – while also taking the time to share and play music with anyone who wants to and listen. That’s something we can all learn from.