Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Peter Bernstein: Jazz Guitarist - Part 1

“Ciao Stefano!
Yes, the gig [in Rome, September, 2009] with Peter was fantastic and we really had a great time. He's a swingin' mother!
Great harmonic and melodic ideas and a real nice ego at all, just commitment to the music. We need more guys like that.”
– Jazz pianist, Dado Moroni

“Peter Bernstein is the most impressive young guitarist I’ve heard. He plays the best of all of them, for swing, logic, feeling and taste. Pete has paid attention to the past as well as to the future. … he is just so intense and white hot all the time. I love it. I’m really glad that he’s there and that he’s moving ahead in his own way.”
 –Jim Hall

“[About his clean, unembellished tone] … Bernstein recalled:the guys that I loved had a touch on the instrument …. I just wanted to deal with the music and develop a relationship with the instrument that came from my hands.’”
– Eric Fine, Jazz Times April/2009

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Growing up as I did in a second generation Italian-American, New England family, it wasn’t long before various combinations of immediate and extended family were congregating around good food and plenty of it.

The quintessential version of these feasts was the one that followed High Mass at the Holy Ghost Catholic Church located very near my maternal, grandmother’s house in the Federal Hill area of Providence, RI [my knees still hurt from the lengthy prayers I mumbled through during these Latinized rituals while trying to keep the lower part of my legs from going to sleep due to a lack of circulation].

These Sunday banquets usually commenced around 1:00 PM and became all-afternoon marathons centered around what seemed like never-ending, multi-course meals.

Food is viewed by Italian families as a blessing from God and, as such, one to be shared with as many people as possible.  Thus, by the time the pasta “plati” [course] was served, it wasn’t unusual for another half-dozen or so chairs to have been added to the table for the friends and family members who “just happened to be in the neighborhood.”

After the final course was consumed, the men usually found a comfortable place to lie down for a snooze, the children went outside to play, and the women cleared the table, made the coffee and chatted amiably while re-setting the table with a dazzling array of desserts.

As everyone was reconvening around the replenished dining room table to re-stuff themselves with various baked, sugared treats, some of the men pushed chairs away and brought out guitars and mandolins and, of course, the ever-present accordion and concertina.

Thus began my early childhood fascination with the guitar, one that has continued to this day.

At these Sunday family gatherings, all of these instruments were played mostly as accompaniment to the signing of Italian folk or love songs and an array of popular songs from what has come to be called The Great American Songbook.

But occasionally, one of my uncles would play a solo on his high gloss varnished, dark-stained Gibson guitar – un-amplified, of course – and I would become absolutely enthralled by the mellow sounds coming from that beautiful instrument.

I was so taken with the sound of the guitar that I even attempted a few lessons, but alas, it was not to be, as winter arrived, the ponds froze over and the ice hockey games once again began in earnest as the future goalkeeping chores of the next, great New York Rangers’ goalie beckoned [the Providence Reds were a Ranger AHL farm team at that time].

While I never achieved the latter aspiration, the warm, engaging sounds of the guitar, this time amplified and played by the likes of Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel and Joe Pass, to name but a few, have remained an allure for me.

Speaking of Joe, I once asked him why there were so few Jazz guitarists compared to those who practiced the art on other instruments. His succinctly put answer was: “Because it’s a bitch of an instrument to play, let alone play Jazz on.”

As a young, Jazz drummer on the Los Angeles Jazz scene of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, I was very fortunate to be able to often work with guitarist Barry Zweig who has gone on to achieve a long-list of distinguished Jazz credits. There were also some gigs with guitarists Ron Anthony, Al Viola and Al Hendrickson.

It was always a better musical environment when the guitarist led these gigs because it usually meant that there was no piano which relieved the congestion generally caused by two percussive, “keyboard” instruments essentially trying to do the same thing in a Jazz combo setting.

As a drummer, I learned very early to under-play when working with Jazz guitarists which may account for the fact that I worked with so many of them so often.

Given this early fascination and later musical involvement with the guitar, I am always very receptive to “new faces” on the instrument and I’m always especially pleased to discover a new Jazz guitarist whose music “speaks to me.”

Imagine my delight, then, when I first encountered Peter Bernstein playing on Hammond B-3 organist Melvin Rhyne’s initial disc for the Holland-based, Criss Cross label entitled The Legend [Criss 1059 CD].

Like so many of the fine recordings by Gerry Teekens, the Dutch producer and owner of the Criss Cross label, I was led to them by my interest in the playing of drummer Kenny Washington [who has appeared on no less than 44 recordings for Criss Cross, a number only exceeded by his usual running mate, bassist Peter Washington – no relation].

As mentioned previously in other profiles, for reasons both personal and professional, I was not very involved with Jazz for most of the decade of the 1980’s. As a result, I didn’t come across Kenny’s playing until I heard him on tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore’s 1989 Landmark recording, Images [LCD 1520-2].

It was “love-at-first-hearing” and I began to seek out recordings on which Kenny appeared which obviously led me to the Criss Cross label, among others. [For a detailed feature on Kenny and many of the recordings on which he plays, please check the JazzProfiles archives under June 28, 2008].

There are many ironies with my first encounter with guitarist Peter Bernstein not the least of which is that I first experienced his playing on an album with a Hammond B-3 organist and with a drummer who plays in a manner very reminiscent of Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb – an approach to Jazz drumming that I prefer, immensely.

To digress for a moment, before he sky-rocketed to fame with his Verve LPs of the mid-to-late 1960’s, guitarist Wes Montgomery made three, seminal Jazz trio recordings for the much smaller Riverside label in 1959 and then later in 1963 with none-other than Hammond B-3 organist Melvin Rhyne [who appears on all of them] and Jimmy Cobb [who appears on one of them].

Ever since I first heard Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy Smith’s Blue Note recordings, I have always had a fondness for organ-guitar-drums trios and the three LPs that Wes made for Riverside using this format have always been among my favorites.

From 1959-1963, when he was not working with The Mastersounds [a group that included brothers Buddy on vibes/piano and Monk on bass], Wes Montgomery worked with Melvin Rhyne in a trio that included Paul Parker or George Brown on drums [they are also the drummers on the other two Riverside LPs and both also display a Philly Jo Jones inspired style of drumming].

When A&R man and record producer Creed Taylor signed Wes to Verve Records and a whole new world of commercial music and larger orchestras, Melvin, who, like Wes, was originally from Indianapolis, eventually resettled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he essentially remained until rediscovered as “The Legend” on his first of what was to become a dozen recordings for Criss Cross.

Although Gerry has had some notable Jazz artists record for Criss Cross, among them, Pepper Adams, Chet Baker and Jimmy Raney, for the past 20+ years,  Teekens’ stock-in-trade has been to make bi-annual visits to New York in the spring and late fall of each year to record up-and-coming young Jazz musicians, especially those who are highly regarded by their peers.

In this context, the 1991 recording of the “legendary” Melvin Rhyne may have been somewhat of an anomaly from Gerry’s preferred approach but not when one realizes that he had had the benefit of an audition the day before when he had recorded the Rhyne-Bernstein-Washington rhythm section as part of trumpeter Brian Lynch’s At The Main Event Criss Cross CD [1070, which also includes Ralph Moore on tenor saxophone]. The Lynch album gets its name from a club in Milwaukee where Lynch first heard and played with organist Rhyne.

Peter Bernstein found himself on the At The Main Event Lynch date according to Lora Rosner’s insert notes because:

“A few weeks before his record date Lynch heard guitarist Peter Bernstein at the Village Gate and was so taken with his playing that he asked him to be on the date as well. Bernstein predictably gains the respect of every great musician he works with; Jimmy Cobb first asked Peter to work with him in April '89 when he was all of 21 and the guitarist recently led his own quartet featuring Cobb for a standing-room-only week at the Village Gate. Lou Donaldson thought he was listening to a Grant Green record the first time he heard Peter play, subsequently featured him on his CD, Play the Right Thing (Fantasy)….  Criss Cross producer Gerry Teekens was so pleased with the results of Lynch's date that he asked Rhyne to do an impromptu trio recording the next day and Mel was quite happy to have Bernstein and young veteran Kenny Washington under him again in the studio.”

Also from her inserts notes, I find myself to be in total agreement with Lora’s description of Peter Bernstein’s playing when she writes that he:

… incorporates the best qualities of Wes Montgomery and Grant Green. He's an expressive soloist whose horn-inspired lines draw much of their power, beauty and effectiveness from his soulful time.” [Emphasis Mine]

I would go on to add that for an instrument that Joe Pass described as “a bitch to play,” in the all the years that I have been listening to him, I have never, ever heard Peter Bernstein make a mistake!

A walk through Peter Bernstein’s discography will insure a musical “visit” with some of the best musicians on the current Jazz scene.  Here’s a partial list of who he has performed and/or recorded with:

Trumpeters: Joe Magnarelli, Ryan Kisor, Jim Rotondi, Nicholas Payton, Brian Lynch

Trombonists: Steve Davis, Wycliffe Gordon

Alto Saxophonists: Jon Gordon, Lou Donaldson, Jesse Davis, Michael Hashim

Tenor Saxophonists: Eric Alexander, Walt Weiskopf, Joshua Redman, Grant Stewart, Ralph Bowen, Michael Karn, Ralph Lalama, Tad Shull

Keyboardists: Larry Goldings, Geoff Keezer, Mike LeDonne, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Melvin Rhyne, Sam Yahel

When sampling the music from the above [incomplete] list, the amount of excellent Jazz that Peter has contributed on these recordings over the past 20 years is staggering to consider in terms of the depth and breadth of its scope.

Peter Bernstein was born in New York City on September 3, 1967. He probably got his first break while attending the New School in NYC when he first met, and later studied with, guitarist Jim Hall, whose own spare and always swinging style was no doubt a big influence on Peter. Peter also studied with guitarists Ted Dunbar and Gene Bertoncini.

You know when Peter is soloing because your foot starts bouncing up and down involuntarily. He is a “cooker” who selects single notes and phrases and emphasizes them just long enough to create an intense feeling of forward motion in his solos.

This ability to “sustain” notes primarily through the manner in which he spaces them also creates a singing quality to his playing.

The resonance he achieves on the guitar just jumps out at you and it’s almost impossible to repress a smile when listening to Peter as his playing is so pleasing and engrossing.

The sound that comes out of his instrument is so beautiful that one is tempted to describe it as the definitive sound of an amplified, Jazz guitar.

All of these stylistic ingredients are on display in Peter’s solo on Billie’s Bounce, the first tune on Mel’s Spell another of Melvin Rhyne’s Criss Cross CD’s [Criss 1118 CD] featuring the trio with Peter and Kenny Washington.

In his insert notes to this 1995 disc, Jazz DJ and writer, Sid Gribetz declares:

“Peter Bernstein has emerged as one of the finest guitar players of his generation and he’s always in demand. He’s assimilated Wes and Grant Green and all styles in between, and he plays clean crisp lines with a distinctive attack and complimentary sound to fit the situation. It must be daring for a guitarist to play in a trio with Wes’s organist, but Peter overcomes any comparisons and adds his personal voice to the proceedings.”

As was the case with The Trick Bag on The Legend, Mel’s Spell also includes Wes Montgomery compositions from the original Riverside LP’s in the form of Fried Pies and Like Yea and Melvin, Peter and Kenny absolutely nail them with inspired playing.

Peter recorded his first as a leader for Criss Cross in 1992. Entitled Somethin’s Burnin’  [Criss 1079 CD] it included Jimmy Cobb on drums, the then relatively unknown Brad Mehldau on piano and bassist John Webber. The group had been working around NYC as Cobb’s Mob for a few years.

Mark Gardner commented in his insert notes to Somethin’s Burnin’:

“… Bernstein has honed a beautiful sound and his technical ability enables him to play exactly what he hears. His rhythmic suppleness and clarity of thought, good blues feeling and ability to pattern solos of melodic grace will be immediately evident on a first playing of this …CD. It is an unusually brilliant debut, filled with felicities and solo statements that will endure.”

Dating back to 1989 and before his work on Criss Cross, Peter’s formative years were marked by a special working relationship with keyboardist Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart, one that occasionally continues to this day.

In his insert notes to Peter’s 1997 Earth Tones Criss Cross CD [Criss 1151 CD], Damon Smith explains the evolution of how Peter came together with Larry and Bill as part of the larger experience of growing up as a Jazz musician in New York City.

“Peter Bernstein received an in valuable music education simply growing up in New York City. It provided him the opportunity to listen to musicians on a regular basis who are inspiring and motivating him today.  In addition to its formal classroom, New York also offered Peter the opportunity to study with teachers who recognized and encouraged his talent. From Attila Zoller in high school and gene Bertoncini at the Eastman Summer Jazz Workshop, to Ted Dunbar at Rutgers University and Jin Hall at the New School, each instructor uniquely influenced Pete’s playing and career.


Another byproduct of living in New York was that Peter was able to work with young musicians of the highest caliber – two of whom were Bill Stewart and Larry Goldings. He has been working with them as a trio since the summer of 1989.  Peter had just returned from spending a year in Paris and Larry Goldings, whom he had met in 1984, when both were attending the Eastman Jazz Workshop, was working at a club called Augie’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Pete and Larry became the regular Thursday night band at the club using various drummers. Eventually, Pete called Bill Stewart whom he had known when both were studying at William Paterson College in New Jersey and the last piece of the puzzle was in place.

Thursday nights at Augie’s became immensely popular. The trio’s reputation grew rapidly and was a factor that led to their recording … [a series of records together].”

… Pete’s playing is not often mistaken for other guitarists.  He has a focused musical concept that features a pure tone and singing phrases Horn players have been prominent influences on his singular style. He chooses notes carefully, making each one count in constructing intelligent interesting solos.” [Emphasis mine].

As Eric Fine explains in his April/2009 JazzTimes interview with and article on Peter:

“Bernstein looks beyond the guitar for inspiration, a penchant he attributes in part to studying with guitarist Ted Dunbar in 1985. ‘He was the one who told me [to] learn about harmony [by hanging out] with piano players and arrangers,’ Bernstein said. ‘And if you want to learn about phrasing, hang out with horn players and good singers. And if you want to learn about rhythm, hang out with drummers and bass players. Don’t be a guitar player who hangs around other guitar players.”

The Bernstein-Goldings-Stewart trio issued a number of recordings under Larry’s name. Among these is their wonderful bossa nova CD entitled Caminhos Cruzados [Novus 63184-2] which has tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman as a guest artist on some tracks.

Peter’s solo on the Jobim tune that gives the album its name is one of the most beautiful guitar solos I’ve ever heard in over a half century of listening to recorded Jazz. It brings forth so many moody dimensions that it wraps the listener in an evocative hush.

There is so much good music on this CD that I guarantee that you will have a difficult time removing it from your CD player.

By the time trio made Moonbird in 1999 [Palmetto records PM 2045], it’s issuance caused Bob Blumenthal to reflect in his insert notes that:

“With a decade of playing together under their belts, Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein  and Bill Stewart must form one of the most long-lived organ trios in Jazz history. Each member has amassed an imposing individual resume during this period, yet their collective work has signified something more – a reaffirmation, not of the organ trio as a unit capable of satisfying a temporary fashion for things, but as an instrumentation as perfectly balanced in its way as the threesome of piano, bass and drums or, in another realm, the string quartet. ….

A lot could be said about the individual performances. In addition to … [Goldings’] cliché-free work, there are numerous signs of why Bernstein and Stewart are also considered the most important voices to emerge on their respective instruments in the past decade. Still, the overriding impression that the music leaves involves group interaction. … These musicians have played together enough and listened to each other enough to have found their own way, and it shows. They have made the organ/guitar/drums unit not just relevant for the 90’s, but for what comes next.”

In addition Somethin’s Burnin’  [Criss 1079 CD] and Earth Tones Criss Cross CD [Criss 1151 CD], Peter has three additional discs of Criss Cross and a review of each of them will serve to close Part 1 of this JazzProfiles visit with Peter and his music, as well as, introduce us to some of the other artists with whom he frequently plays. Peter’s work as a “sideman” with other artists from the group enumerated above will become the basis of Part 2 of this feature.

Signs of Life [Criss 1095] was recorded at the end of 1994 and finds Peter in the company of three outstanding Jazz musicians representative of the current crop of excellent players on today’s scene: pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Gregory Hutchinson.

As Neil Tesser alludes in his insert notes to the disc, the Jazz world almost lost Peter before it had him.  Put another way, not too many guitarists growing up in the 1970s made the leap from Jimi Hendrik, B.B. King and Jazz-Rock guitarists such as John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny back to a respectful incorporation of the Jazz guitar lineage as provided by Charlie Christian, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and Grant Green.

Tesser goes on to explain:

“You hear this respect most immediately in his lustrous, spherical tone, and in his remarkably pointed technique.  Bernstein isn’t ‘fancy’ in his technique: he doesn’t try to overwhelm with the sheer multitude of notes. His playing has a hard-won quality about it, communicating the idea that each note should count – that few (if any) of them should simply fill up space.

In his own words, ‘Technique molds itself around what you play; it eventually catches up to where you are. The most important thing is the sound, the voice you project.’ ….

But with all these roots, how does one avoid simply reliving the past? Peter Bernstein manages to make the tradition he upholds sound fresh and true; how does he wriggle out of the neo-classic trap?

‘I try to add something from my own personality …. I’m just trying to establish a personal voice, and the tradition is a vehicle for the way I work now. But everything is drawing on a tradition. People ask why no one’s trying to blaze trails and do new things. Although I do see [some of that] happening as well, but it’s not the style that makes it hip.  It’s the creativity.’”

In Tesser’s insert notes, Peter had this to say when commenting on his use of bassist Christian McBride on the date:

“He just has everything covered … choice of notes, sound, time, musicality – he’s really like an old master before his time. I wanted to be sure that he and I did a duet [My Ideal] , to try to bring out a more intimate side of my own playing.”

Peter’s next recording under his own name for Criss Cross was the 1996 release of Brain Dance [Criss 1130 CD]]. The CD was a point of departure for Peter and, as such, one that we will return to in the second part of the piece, because this disc involves Peter working with horns in the front line – in this case, Eric Alexander on tenor saxophone and Steve Davis on trombone.

Typically in the presence of horns, one might expect the guitar to assume a rhythm section role much like the accompaniment provided by the piano, or to take a turn as a feature soloist. But this was Peter’s session and as its leader, he had other ideas. As Sid Gribetz explains in his liner notes:

“‘… when I do have an opportunity to do my own record, I want to do my own tunes.’ This album therefore, includes four fine original pieces by Bernstein, as well as four jazz standards.

Bernstein also wrote these [original] pieces for horns, with his guitar instead of trumpet for the lead voice, and one reed, and one brass, the trombone ‘to fatten up the sound of the ensemble and make the chords sound bigger than they are.’ Bernstein also notes that ‘my guitar style is not to play many notes, so each note must mean something, just like the approach the trombone must make.”

Peter offers a very lyrical interpretation of Fredrick Hollander’s standard You Leave Me Breathless, a tune I first heard pianist Eddie Higgins play with his quintet on his debut album for VeeJay Records. I gather from Gribetz’s notes that Peter had brought the tune along with the intention of recording it with the horns. Choosing instead to do it as a trio version, he renders a lovely interpretation of this beautiful melody.

For Heart’s Content,  Peter’s next leader date for Criss Cross [Criss 1233 CD], he used Larry Grenader on bass along with two of his oldest musical mates, Bill Stewart on drums and Brad Mehldau on piano.  Brad also did the insert notes for the recording. In them, he provides some unique perspectives on Peter and his music – ones that only another musician could make.

For example, Brad points out:

The hardest thing to express is how someone’s music moves you. With Pete, I always immediately get drawn into the sound he gets from his instrument. He’s emoting with each note he plays. He has this crying tone on his guitar. His notes sustain and ring out, like they don’t want to disappear. It’s a fat tone at the same time, earthy and satisfying. That voice he has on his instrument compels me to listen.

The emotions Pete conveys are wonderfully mixed. One thing he specializes in is communicating an underlying melancholy that tugs at you steadily, at the same time expressing something more in the forefront that’s vital and urgent, not down in the dumps at all.

Brad’s loving and admiring insert notes contain so many instructive comments about why Peter’s playing is so distinctive, that we thought we would quote from them liberally as a way of concluding this first part of the JazzProfiles feature on Peter.

Frankly, after you read more of his writing, I’m sure that you will agree that given its quality, Brad could have a second career as a Jazz reviewer if he ever decides to retire from playing piano.

“I met Peter Bernstein soon after I arrived in New York City in 1988. Many people would have different ideas about what might constitute a 'New York' sound, if anything. I would call it more of an ethos that Pete came to personify for me, one that I still associate with my favorite players who reside in New York. That ethos doesn't form one specific style of playing; it's more like a collection of deeply felt sentiments about jazz music that form the basis for a broad range of possible styles.

Those musical sentiments would include the importance of melody at all times in whatever you're expressing, which means playing phrases that have a shape to them and not just running licks. That in turn implies a healthy distrust of arbitrariness in general. It you're going to play a tune, you don't fudge on learning the melody. Pete was the first musician I met who would make periodic pilgrimages to the New York Public Library to get the original sheet music for, say, an Irving Berlin tune.

That was one of many valuable lessons that I got from Pete early on. If you go to the original source to learn a tune, your arrangement of it will speak authentically as your own take on that song, instead of being your version of Miles Davis' version, for example. I think that's why whenever I hear Pete play a standard, it never sounds arbitrary. He always seems to create a definitive version of a tune, one that intersects gracefully between an unapologetic affection for the original song, and his own personal musical choices for his arrangement. They include the way he phrases the melody, his improvisation, and a host of other factors that make you smile as a listener and say, "That's Pete." Dedicated to You on this record is a perfect example. Listen to how he lovingly treats the melody - it sounds like this is his own song.

The first time I heard Peter Bernstein was at a jam session, playing on a medium slow blues. With me in the audience were several musical peers, including Larry Goldings. Larry was just starting to play the organ in addition to piano, and eventually would form the heaviest, most original organ trio jazz has seen in the last two decades, with Pete on guitar and Bill Stewart, who joins Pete on this record, on drums. ....

The blues had been going on for almost half an hour and everyone's interest had peaked after about 4 minutes. Solo after solo ensued, full of well-intentioned but vapid testifying and shrieking from horn players and scat-singers. Just when it was getting painful, Pete began to solo. He basically annihilated everything that had preceded him and left all of us just shaking our heads in awe. We were emotionally reduced to jelly; he brought tears to our eyes. I left that day shaken.

What was it in his playing? To start with, there was a gravity to what he was doing emotionally that just drew me in - 'Dude, this is serious.' But it wasn't just serious for the sake of being serious. His playing was informed by what I can only describe as a profound love for music, in this case specifically the blues, which is so prevalent in Pete's music. It was like he had discovered something beautiful, and he wanted urgently to share it with all of us. A serious love that urgently needs to be shared with other people - it all translates into something that you might call the humanity in Pete's music. I felt like he was telling me something about myself that day, and I always feel that way when I hear him.

Pete's reading on this record of Strayhorn's masterpiece, Blood Count, is a case in point. In a solo guitar setting, he gives it to us stripped down. The naked desolation of the tune speaks all the more clearly. But Pete doesn't push the point. He never veers into sentimentality. and allows the pathos to speak for itself by giving us a reading that's devoid of affectation. Many other musicians would be tempted to milk this song much more. The melody, with its exotic chord tones and glissandos, and the fragrant Strayhorn harmony that underpins it, almost cry out for an overtly expressive, theatrical reading. That's why this tune is so difficult to play - if you give into that temptation it can easily become sentimental. Pete's approach is to let the sentiment in the tune speak for itself - it's already there, it doesn't need to be magnified. He coaxes the emotion out of the tune instead of loudly stating it. The effect on me as a listener is that I get more from it, not less. This version of 'Blood Count' has a wonderful twofold quality, It has what I usually associate with the song - a raw feeling of mortality, like someone hanging on. But Pete gives you a bittersweet kind of recompense: If you're just hanging on in this music, then as you slip away, losing your grasp, you're finally able to see how beautiful everything really is.

I've come to believe that the sort of 'maturity' that Pete displays on 'Blood Count' is the kind of musical attribute that's more innate than acquired. It's a question of temperament. You start with that temperament already. It can be developed and refined, but if you don't have it to begin with, it can't really be learned. Pete's no slouch, and he has a real thirst for new musical discoveries. Over the years I've seen how he assimilates them into his own playing and writing like early on in our friendship when he got really deep into Billie Holiday, or a few years back when he turned me onto the music of Donny Hathaway. Nevertheless, there are certain qualities central to his music that he had from the gate. That was one of the things that always struck me and other musicians who were playing with Pete early on in our own development. Here we were absorbing all these influences at once, sounding like a different musician depending on what context we were playing in. But Pete, from the first time I heard him at least in 1988, already had his own identity - he sounded like Peter Bernstein in whatever situation he was in. That just blew us away.

One important quality of Pete's is his rhythmic authority. A good example on this record is his own Simple as That. This is the kind of tempo that inspires the cliché, 'separates the men from the boys,' It's a medium-slow groove, and Pete can wax in this vein like nobody's business. In the opening melody, and then in his solo later, his lines are relaxed and poised all at once. Pete's feel on this sort of tempo has always been devastatingly good - he sits a little behind the beat and gets you into this slow-burn state. That quiet authority of his, though, comes from the consistency in his line: He never gets away from his ideas, he never rushes inadvertently, and nothing is ever the slightest bit unclear in what he's communicating. When I'm playing behind him on a tune like this, his mixture of relaxed swing and total clarity has the effect of pulling me into his musical statement completely. I've only had that experience playing with a few other musicians. It's what they mean when they say someone has a 'big beat.'

That quality of Pete's is probably both innate and absorbed. He always had this incredible sense of pacing in his playing, a sort of patience rhythmically. But I definitely remember checking out who he was checking out and seeing what kinds of players in jazz pointed the way for him. He has his guitar heroes for sure, but more often than not, I've noticed how horn players influence Pete. So, that relaxed kind of rhythmic authority might be informed by tenor players that I know he loves - the built-in backbeat of Gene Ammons, the behind-the-beat long eighth-note lines of Dexter Gordon, or the strong, swinging logic of Sonny Rollins' phrases.

That brings up another thing about Pete that sets him apart for me: I've always thought of him less as a guitarist and more as a musician. His swing feel – that 'big beat' that he has - is something you associate more with a horn player than a guitar player. But it goes further than feel. Particularly in his writing, he's more concerned with purely musical matters, and less with guitar stuff. Incidentally, Pete is a competent piano player. It's kind of uncanny. Even when he plays the piano, not on his own axe, he still has a harmonic concept that's completely specific to him and no one else, like in the way he voices chords, or the progressions he comes up with when he's just noodling. I've noticed that Pete often begins writing a tune of his own by getting an initial idea at the piano - a progression or a little voice leading figure - and then moves over to the guitar to continue writing.

Heart's Content, the title track of the record, is a beauty. It's got some quintessential Peter Bernstein things going on. Check out the simplicity and economy of the melody. Except on the brief bridge and the coda, the melody always stays wonderfully in one minor scale, outlining a specific shape and building off of it. While the chords under it are moving and shifting a fair amount, the melody is a constant; the bluesy melancholy it gives off acts as a binder for all the harmonic activity. A lot of Pete's tunes operate on this principle of placing a largely diatonic, simple melody over some advanced, often dense chords that move a fair amount. The effect on the listener is a great kind of give and take. You get pushed along with the movement of the harmony, responding to the flux, but at the same time are emotionally anchored by the melody. And Pete is never very far away from that melody in his solo statement.

Two predecessors for that sort of jazz compositional approach might come to mind, mainly Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter. I know that Pete has absorbed their music a lot. There's something more about Pete that he has in common with those two jazz composers. His tunes are stitched together so well, there's so much compositional logic to them, that you can't just willy-nilly superimpose your own vocabulary when it comes time to solo. You have to address the tune in some way in your improvisations; it sort of compels you to do so. If you simply paste your own licks onto one of Pete's tunes, you run the risk of sounding strangely irrelevant, like an unwanted dinner guest. ….

I remember Pete telling me what one of his teachers, the late great pianist Jaki Byard, shared with him about playing jazz: "You can't lie." I suspect what Jaki Byard meant is that even if you try to lie as a player, you'll wind up telling the truth to anyone who has ears enough to hear it - that you're up there on the bandstand, just trying to lie, and you're not fooling anyone in the long run.

Peter Bernstein has a rare honesty about him as a musician. Quite simply, that quality comes naturally to him, because he has nothing to lose by being honest. The music that he offers the listener is always something that he's carried within himself first, and then loved into being. It's a beautiful world unto itself, and Heart's Content is a good place to either continue enjoying that world, or discover it for the first time.

Brad Mehldau, March 2003”

... to be continued in Part 2