Thursday, October 15, 2009

Michael Brecker

“His work as a session-man has polished his style into something superbly confident and muscular, a Coltrane without the questing inner turmoil.”
- Richard Cook & Brian Morton,
The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD
6th Edition

“Mike Brecker was, by the 1980s, the most influential saxophonist since John Coltrane; any aspiring saxophonist was forced to take account of his tone, technique, energy and his harmonic methodology.”
- Stuart Nicholson
Jazz: The 1980’s Resurgence

“Michael Brecker developed into perhaps the most comprehensive saxophone talent of … [the last 30 years] with a burnished, incisive sound and a fluency and drive which are unsurpassed.”
- Ian Carr
Jazz: The Rough Guide

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

I miss Michael Brecker.

His impassioned, Coltranesque wails on the tenor saxophone never failed to move me and his knuckle-busting, chromatic runs never failed to astound me. I loved the sound that he got on the tenor saxophone and I loved the improvisations he made using that sound as a constant and unyielding focal point.

Michael’s passing on January 13, 2007 at the age of 58 meant the end of his incessant explorations in a variety of musical contexts, both acoustical and electronic. He grew up as a part of the generation of Jazz musicians who saw rock music not as the enemy but as a viable musical option. His all-embracing musical curiosity encompassed everything from electronic wind instruments to African music.

Over the course of his career, this “quiet, gentle musician who was widely regarded as the most influential tenor saxophone player since John Coltrane,” won 15 Grammy Awards and played with some of the most influential Jazz and rock ‘n roll groups of the second half of the 20th century including:

- Horace Silver
- Herbie Hancock
- Quincy Jones
- Chick Corea
- George Benson
- Billy Cobham
- James Taylor
- Paul Simon
- Joni Mitchell
- Eric Clapton
- Frank Zappa
- Bruce Springsteen
- Steely Dan
- Claus Ogerman
- Jaco Pastorius
- Pat Metheny

He led his own groups, usually quartets and frequently in the company of either keyboardists Don Grolnick or Joey Calderazzo, and co-led the groups Steps Ahead with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and The Brecker Brothers with his brother, trumpeter Randy Brecker.

In looking for a way of saluting this singular and seminal artist, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles uncovered the following audio interview that Michael gave presumably to Wouter Turkenburg, head of the Jazz department at the Koninklijk Conservatorium in The Hague, Holland as part of a March 21, 2004 performance and clinic with the students studying Jazz at the conservatory.

The generosity of spirit and modesty that always seemed to inform Michael's personality, despite his huge success as a performing artist, shines through during the 38 minute interview with this self-effacing and fascinating man.

To the best of our knowledge, it is being presented here as a written transcription for the first time.

Some of the stop-and-start language that typically plays a part in conversations has been streamlined to create more of a flow between the interviewer’s questions and Michael’s answers. Other than these simple adjustments, nothing has been altered from the original interview, although I have added annotations and/or examples to help complete or elaborate on some of the expressed thoughts that make up the interview.

Koninklijk Conservatorium Interviewer [KCI]:  The idea of this session is that the students have written out the questions that I will ask Michael to give answers to.

Michael Brecker has also been to school [i.e.: a music conservatory] at Indiana University, but only for a short period.  Why that school; what was happening there?

Michael Brecker [MB]: I went to Indiana University in 1968 [from Philadelphia, PA where he was born and raised] to pursue a career in music and I enrolled there because the music school was famous. Also, my brother Randy [trumpet player] had gone there.

I went there but I changed my major away from music. I had a kind of rebellion. I grew up in a very musical family. My father was an attorney and a Jazz pianist. So we were all very highly influenced by his approach to music. He loved Jazz and he loved music so we were all kind of subtly urged to pursue careers in music. For whatever reasons, I rebelled at the last minute and decided that I wanted to be a doctor.

It was kind of a reverse rebellion. I ended up in the Liberal Arts School for a little over a year. Then I switched again to the Fine Arts. I was painting and then I decided to leave the university altogether in 1969 and moved to New York, because I had decided to pursue music.

My art teaching at the university became a good friend of mine and he suggested that I become a musician.

I think that it was an unwise decision in retrospect. If there is one thing that I could change – I don’t really have any regrets about anything – but if I were to do one thing again it would have been to complete school.

KCI: The Medicine School or the Fine Arts School?

MB: The Music School.

KCI: A few years ago, you were interested in African Music.  How did it happen, I mean you have good timing …

MB: [To which Michael interrupts and says] “Thank You” [with laughter following from the students in attendance for the interview].

KCI: From you interest in African music, did your timing become better or more profound?

MB: It’s very simple as to the attraction, I just liked the sound of African music.

[One of the pieces that Michael performed during the concert portion of his March 24th 2004 visit to the Koninklijk Conservatorium was his original composition African Skies which can be found on the GRP disc The Brecker Brothers: Out of the Loop GRD-9784].

I don’t know if I really know what “African Music” means, it’s so broad a term. There are so many different kinds of music coming from the continent of Africa. I was intrigued by the rhythmic aspect of the music, and harmonic aspect.

And I’d always loved the tension and release created in Jazz rhythm and I was intrigue how Jazz may have grown out of African music [in this regard].

While I’m intrigued by it, I really don’t know that much about. I haven’t really been to Africa other than to South Africa and Botswana.

From that standpoint, it is kind of ludicrous, but I enjoy listening to the music. Although I have a great collection [of African music] at home, I still have a lot to learn.

KCI: Are there any specific, African rhythms that appeal to you; maybe from Senegal?

MB: It’s hard for me to comment, specifically. I had a chance to get a little closer to it during the tour I did with Paul Simon in 1991 when we traveled with a lot of good musicians from South Africa. So I asked a lot of questions, I mean I asked really dumb questions, and they were gracious enough to let me tag along.

KCI: What kind of questions? Why were they “dumb?”

MB: My main question was where is “1” [i.e., the first beat of a bar or measure of, in this case, African music]. [Laughter from the students because of the very basic nature of the question]. And the South African musician would always say: “Don’t count.”

They played some very highly developed music for me [the implication being that Michael would never be able to follow this music if he tried to count it out in standard Western or European forms].

One of the South Africa musicians used to tap me on the shoulder on “1” when we would listen to recorded versions of this music when we would travel on buses and planes. I didn’t even have to ask after a while. [more laughter, this time from both the interviewer and the students].

KCI: Did it affect your way of playing; give you ideas?

MB: It gave me writing [compositional] ideas, but it hasn’t necessarily affected my playing, per se. It did give me new avenues and opened other doors rhythmically.
I’ve done some recording reflecting these influences, but I would still like to make a whole record of this music.

KCI: Coming from different societies, do you think that it’s possible to understand that music and make a representative recording of it?

MB: I wouldn’t try to do that; I see it more as cross-pollination. The idea wouldn’t be to pick an African flower and take it home, but to plant things around the flower and let them cross pollinate like taking some subtle rhythmic ideas and writing around them. That’s what I’ve done in the past in an attempt to make it something of my own.

KCI: You were talking about composing, how do you compose? Do you take a walk along the Hudson [River] and then melodies come to you like some classical composer of romantic melodies?

MB: [With his tongue apparently in his cheek, Michael replied:] “I dream them and when I wake up they are written! [howling laughter from the students]. I actually have friends who have done this. I have dreamt some music, but I always forget it when I wake-up.

KCI: Do you think it is possible to dream in music?

MB: Yes. A lot of Life’s conflicts are resolved in our dreams and since dreams are pure creativity, there’s a lot that happens in them.  Occasionally, I do dream something [about music] which I think in the dream is really great, unfortunately I forget it when I wake up. But I do remember the experience  of having dreamt it, but the notes are gone.

I don’t know where the [writing/compositional] ideas come from.  I used to say that writing [composing] was difficult for me, bit for some reason it has now become not difficult and a lot of fun for me.

Maybe it was difficult at first because it wasn’t natural for me; I didn’t have any kind of natural leaning toward being a writer.

When my brother [Randy] and I formed the Brecker Brothers, we made our first record in 1975 and it really was a Randy Brecker album, and that’s what it was meant to be. It turned out that the record company wanted to, at the last minute, call it Brecker Brothers [Arista 4037 LP; 31449 CD]

But my brother had written the whole album and it was brilliant music in a way that was totally identifiable as “Randy Brecker.” He had both a harmonic and rhythmic approach that was very unique.

The record was successful which was kind of the good news and the bad news. The good news was that we had a group that could tour and record, and all of that was great, but the difficult part of it for me was that I had to begin to write to hold my own.  Otherwise I felt like I was just not contributing anything.

And I was forced to try and write in my brother’s way to make it sound like the Brecker Brothers because we had a sound now, and it was hard because it didn’t really come naturally for me and took a number of to be able to get away from that and to find my own identity.

Once that began to happen, then it began to get easier to write.

I write at the piano, I write on the saxophone and use any tools I can.  The computer is tremendously helpful to me as well.

But as you said, occasionally I will hear a melody or a rhythm while driving the car or in the shower, or in places that are away from music and I try and remember and write it down quickly or get to a piano quickly.

The best way for me to write is to create time everyday in what I visualize as a writing mode and be able to sit down at the keyboard and write.

KCI: So you force yourself to write. Do you think it is a good thing for the students to do?

MB: Yes.

KCI: Why?

MB: Because if you are at the piano and have some ideas happening, you’ll be able to bring them to fruition. I have days when there is nothing happening. There are other days when it is just incredible. But I don’t know where it comes from when it comes. I have no control over that state of mind, but I do have control over the environment that I am in. If I’m next to a piano or near my saxophone, at least I can carry out the ideas [when they come].

KCI: But students should write/compose?

MB: Well, yes, but keep in mind that not everyone is a writer, and I don’t know if everyone needs to write. How can I explain this [express myself more clearly]? For much of the 1920s, 30s, 40s & 50s, writers were separated from performers. The great writers wrote and the singers and musicians performed. George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter …, they were writers and bands and singers performed their material. There was a pretty sharp distinction [between the two] with the exception of maybe Duke Ellington and one or two others.

Gradually, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, musicians began to write their own material and perform it, for better or worse.

I just like to write, I don’t even know if I’m that good at it, but I enjoy doing it. One important thing for me is if I start writing something, I have to finish it. Even if you don’t like the whole tune, at least bring it to some point of resolution. Finishing a tune [whether I like it or not], at least enables me to move on and to start something else.

KCI: You’ve just finished a project with strings that I don’t think anyone has [as yet] heard about. Could you talk about it?

MB: Yes, I actually finished the project with a large ensemble just last night in New York. I had the brilliant idea about 3 days ago of calling it the “New Yorkestra.” But I went on the Internet and found that it already taken. And the person who has the band with this name is a saxophone player. Just my luck. This is an album for three [3] woodwinds – bass clarinet, flute & oboe, three [3] brass – trumpet, trombone & French horn, four [4] strings, and a rhythm section of guitar, bass and drums – no piano. [Michael would ultimately label this group his “Quindectet.”]

I wrote all the tunes, except one [Evening Faces] by [the late] Don Grolnick that was never recorded that I had at home and always wanted to record. I did all the arrangements and then gave them to Gil Goldstein to further arrange into sections and to orchestrate it. I had them somewhat orchestrated, but he really fixed them up.  It was a writing project that I had a lot of fun with.

KCI: How does it sound?

MB: It sounds terrible [loud laughter from the students]. I think it sounds like me, for better or worse. It certainly doesn’t sound like anything else. There are certain things that I wish I could have done differently, but it is a fairly through-written album that I am happy with and I’m curious to see the reaction to it.

The next thing we need to do is arrange the order of the tracks, but I haven’t had time to think about that yet.

KCI: Are these mostly long pieces?

MB: They are an average of eight [8] minutes, but there is a lot of improvisation, mostly coming from me. They are saxophone vehicles and the project was aimed at writing things for the horn.

The mixes were very difficult [from the standpoint of] being able to hear what everyone is doing in each arrangement. I have the mixes with me, but I wanted to be able to create a little space before I heard them again.

KCI: Are you influenced by certain writers, Classical or Jazz?

MB: Definitely. You can’t but be influenced by everything; everything I’ve heard. The strongest influence is Herbie Hancock, who influences all of us. He is one of the great writers of the last few decades. Other influences are Thelonious Monk, my brother, Randy, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane, too, was a great influence writing-wise.  Even though I grew up playing all the standards with my [Jazz piano playing] father, they never felt as though they were mine.

KCI: Do you have an interest in other instruments?

MB: I took flute for a number of years in New York. I have, at times, tried the soprano sax, in vain. I took some lessons on it and probably will continue to. But the tenor has always been the natural and main voice for me. I spent a lot of years playing the EWI [electronic wind instrument] and I’m trying to come up with ways to use its power book as a sound source and nothing else. I write at the piano and used to play a lot of drums [at home], but the tenor saxophone has always been my main voice.

I have to admit that a friend came over to the house the other day with his alto, he let me play it and it felt pretty good. It made me want to get an alto and start messing around with it again.

Even just in terms of my size, the tenor always fits me perfectly. The range of it fulfilled most of my needs.

KCI: How do you work with your writing influences and how do you achieve your unique sound on the saxophone?

MB: By taking what I need and leaving the rest. I also take mental notes when I record. Horace Silver used to tell me that when he soloed on a record, if he played something that he really liked, that he felt was his, that he would always make a mental note of it. And I learned to do that as well; trying to hold on to things that I thought were mine – for lack of a better word, “mine” – because none of us own any of this stuff.

In terms of “sound,” sound is wrapped up in the “feel” as well. The feel itself is connected to the airflow and the rhythm. In terms of sound, often what’s determined is what I don’t want to sound like; and what overtones I don’t want to hear in my sound. Although this is not pleasing to me, I just let it be what it is. I just let my sound be what it is; I can’t capture that or visualize it.

KCI: Can you relate it to colors in a painting; there are some people who say I have a “brown sound.”

MB: I can’t do that, but I can definitely say that it is feminine [mild laughter from students]. I know that sounds really strange, but that’s important to me.

KCI: I’m sure that some people would like you to explain what you mean by having a “feminine sound.”

MB: [KCI suggests these adjectives]  “Soft warm, round, [more laughter] beautiful” … beautiful, yes, it’s not a dense, muscular sound, although I’ve certainly heard it described that way. There’s a certain transparency and there’s no ceiling on the sound. I try and have no roof on it. I want the top of it to be open. It’s very hard to articulate this. So this leads me toward equipment that will produce that and ways of playing that form this sound.

The sound that we get from our instruments is partially, but automatically created by  our own individual shape: we have different throats, jaws and teeth and mouths and these are all automatically connected to the sound that 
is created.

The saxophone, as well, is a tremendously, broadly creative instrument that allows for no, two people to generally sound the same as someone else. Saxophone creates a very complicated, complex wave form if you see it graphed on a computer. It’s ridiculous and make it hard to sample. The physical  characteristics combined with pre-conceived sound ideas can create a very individual sound.

For me in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, I could tell any saxophonist by just hearing one or two notes. Obviously, Stan Getz – one note! Sonny Rollins – one note! Wayne Shorter – one note! Maybe two!! Coltrane – one note! Charlie Parker, sometimes is a little more difficult, because of the recording quality; Cannonball – one note! Paul Desmond, c’mon; half a note!

All of my favorite guys had such unique sounds. Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young – boom, one note!

More difficult in the 80s and 90s. Is that Dave Sanborn or is that someone copying Dave Sanborn?

For people who try to sound like me, generally it is very faltering and I like that; it makes me feel good. On the other hand, I tell them to go back and listen to everybody because I am just a culmination of all the people that I’ve listened to.

Definitely go back and listen to ‘Trane, listen to Sonny, listen to Joe Henderson [he’s another one with one note]. Checkout all these guys; don’t just check me out.

Playing a lot with other people is very important as is recording a lot.  I would go crazy just sitting around doing exercises; I wouldn’t even know what to practice.

I know that you can do things like long tones to create a consistent sound, but to actually make a sound that’s yours, at least for me, was something that happened naturally.

I didn’t sit around and say: OK, now I’m going to practice that sound. It was developed more over years of playing and recording and finding things that worked for me and things that didn’t. 

And it is very difficult for me to change [but sometimes I have to].   

For example, on this trip I brought a different horn. I haven’t been playing for two weeks; didn’t touch the horn. That’s very rare for me, but I’ve been doing a lot of writing, mixing and editing.

The horn that I have been using for the last 25 years has finally decided that it has had enough.  It’s becoming very hard to play. I had it overhauled, but it’s still not working well, so I brought this thing and I hope that it going to … [do the job]. But its already got a different sound.

I love the feeling of performing live in front of an audience with other musicians that are able to really create in the present time.

And I think that this is what really distinguishes Jazz as an art form.

I love to improvise with other musicians, or alone, and the ability to be able to do that in real time and let other people share it in an intimate way is very special and I consider myself very lucky to be able to be in a position to do it.

KCI: Let’s play something from your time with Horace Silver and maybe you can tell us something about it.

KCI: [Plays Michael’s solo on Liberated Brother from Horace’s Silver’s CD In Pursuit of the 27th Man [Blue Note 35758] and asks: “Is this painful or does it bring back good memories?”

MB: Oh, it’s not painful and it does bring back lot’s of good memories. This was in 1973 [actually more like 1970-71]. I think I was 22 or 23 years old. I had auditioned for the band with five [5] other saxophone players in the same room, which I hated. We all had to stand there and play with Horace.

We’d all play the head [tune’s arrangement] together and then each of us took solos with Horace [on piano] and the rest of the rhythm section and that was nerve-wracking.

But I was very fortunate to get the gig and my brother was already playing trumpet with Horace so we obviously had a chemistry.

I remember that I was using an old Otto Link mouthpiece that I had dug out.  It was before I had problems with my throat and I was trying to play that equipment in sort of a funky way which was very difficult to do.

I could tell that Horace was probably “telling” me not to play any sixteenth [16th] notes which he used to do and I didn’t listen to him. [laughter]

For any of the funky stuff, he didn’t want to hear any of the sixteenth [16th] notes, strangely enough.

And I also noticed that I was trying to find common tones in some of the moving changes which is often what I hear guitar players doing. I heard myself doing a couple of guitaristic licks in there.

There was tune on this record that I really liked, it was called Gregory is Here. That was one that I wouldn’t mind hearing. Horace is obviously one of the really great composers and bandleaders. He was really good to me. I remember the first gig that we ever did, we were playing A Song for My Father, which was a big hit for him as well as the big tenor saxophone showcase every night.

My first night with him, I started wailin’ on it and he turned to me and yelled “Gone.” Which was bebop lingo for “Stop.” He wanted me to stop playing. He felt that I had played long enough. 

But on thought he said: “Go on.” [loud laughter from the audience].

I thought he was liking what I was doing, so I started really bearing down and continued to play.

A couple of minutes later he was really irritated and he yelled “Gone,” again.

I thought, Gee, he must really love this [hilarious laughter from the audience].

He explained to me later that “Gone” meant “Stop.”

That was one of my first lessons on stage with Horace. He helped me to edit myself, to be able to say what I had to say in a short period of time.

At that time, I was coming out of the Coltrane-play-really-long-solos-school and he didn’t want that. It didn’t fit his musical sensibility.

A lot of Horace’s on-stage persona was about The Presentation. He took this very seriously and it was the first time that I had ever been in a real Jazz group and we were touring around the US and Europe and it was the first time that I ever had to think about that.

KCI: What do consider to be your best recording?

MB: The next one; the one that’s about to come out [laughter from the audience].

KCI: [Wouter then surprises Michael by playing the title track from their 1978 JVC Japan album Don’t Stop the Music - JVC Japan 37572].

MB: [Audience laughs at the disco vocals] Michael laughs and then says: But there’s some great music on that album, please play track 4. Wouter complies with Michael’s request and plays Randy Brecker’s Squids.

MB: Don't Stop the Music and Finger Licking Good are pure disco, with pushy rhythms and ingratiating backing vocals. They are both a little silly, but they have some great horn riffs. Beyond those danceable tunes, Don't Stop the Music there’s great writing by my brother; some of his most challenging work like the funky and quirky Squids and his Funky Sea, Funky Dew which he wrote as a tenor feature for me.

Some of it sounds dated in terms of recorded sound, but these are very hip compositions and very characteristic of my brother, Randy’s writing.

This record was our third [3rd] record and it was done in 1977.  My most lasting memory of it was that we had done two successful recordings with ARISTA, a brand new label at the time under Clive Davis, and the record company was really pushing us to record a commercial record and they hired a producer for us.

Half of it had our normal wacky stuff on it, and half of it had this inspire, awful tunes.

The first was called Finger Licking Good which, believe it or not, my Mother wrote the lyrics to [audience laughter and Wouter asks Is that true? To which Michael responds, she really did].

We disliked the record so much that we put together a recording entitled Heavy Metal BeBop that was a live record that I liked a lot.  It was pretty adventurous for its time. At that point, we had gone to battle with the record company.

And the one that followed it was called Détente because we had reached a sort of a state of uncomfortable peace with them. Problems with publishing and with our contract. I haven’t heard this [Don’t Stop the Music] in a long time.

KCI: But did it become a disco hit?

MB: Yes it was disco, but no it didn’t become a hit. I had to learn this lesson a number of times during this period, but if you try to do something commercial and it doesn’t do well, then you are forced to live with the darn thing.

We didn’t believe in it in the first place. Generally, if you are recording something that you don’t believe in, you don’t stand a chance.

Ever since then, I have tried to avoid ever letting that happen again. And I think that Randy did as well.

The interview concluded at this point for an intermission to be followed by a performance by Michael with students from the conservatorium.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Peter Bernstein: Jazz Guitarist - Part 2

“The jazz guitarist, among the most sought after in the New York area, has a feather-light touch, an encyclopedic knowledge of chords and the ability to play standards like he's inventing them on the spot.”
---The Los Angeles Daily News

“…, Bernstein remains unique among his peers. He plays only one guitar (and owns but two archtops); he eschews effects pedals and other sonic equipment; he aligns himself with a jazz guitar tradition rooted in the 1950s and 1960s.”  
– Eric Fine, Jazz Times April/2009

“His style is not one of flash, but one of substance. He eschews blazing speed and overwhelming notes in favor of clean, nuanced runs. Whether playing solo or with [trumpeter John] Swana or [tenor saxophonist Grant] Stewart, Pete’s distinctive sound drove the band this night.” 
- Edward Zucker from a review of Peter’s March 31, 2006 appearance at Chris Jazz Café in Philadelphia, PA [Emphasis mine].

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

As we begin the second part of this JazzProfiles feature of Jazz guitarist Peter Bernstein, the editorial staff would like to clarify its position on Grant Green, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery as major influences on his playing.

While Grant, Kenny and Wes are all wonderful guitarists who have no doubt been major influences – Grant, most notably, on the guitar tone that Peter has adopted – we think that he has moved well-beyond these influences to establish his own “voice.”  And without trying to set up any kind of competition in the matter, it is our opinion that technically and creatively, Peter has become even more of a definitive guitarist than some of his influences.

Put another way, Peter Bernstein has made himself into one heck of a Jazz guitarist and one would do well to seek out and listen to the recordings that he appears on and to listen to him on his own terms.  The man can flat-out play.

The initial piece on Peter was focused on trying to provide an in-depth analysis on him and his music, the second part of the feature will place more emphasis on the scope of his work in the form of a partial discography of recordings beyond those he has made under his own name or those he made as part of Larry Goldings’ and Melvin Rhyne’s trios.

Where to begin, then, with Peter’s recordings as a sideman?  There are so many good ones to choose from.  It seems like everyone wants Peter on their date, which is even more of a compliment when realizes that you don’t have to use a guitar, especially not on a front-line.

Also noteworthy is the fact that while many guitarists seem to clash with pianists in small group settings, Peter has made a point of becoming extremely compatible with them.

Take for example his work with pianist, composer, arranger Mike LeDonne whose credentials include stints with vibist Milt Jackson, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson, and eight albums under his own name with respected independent labels Criss Cross and Double Time.

As Sid Gribetz explains in the insert notes to Mike’s Criss Cross CD Waltz for an Urbanite [Criss 1111 CD]:

“LeDonne was looking for something different in this recording, and he chose the guitar-vibes combination, by itself a refreshing variation in today’s climate. At first glance, this grouping may bring to mind the George Shearing [quintet] classics, but LeDonne’s presentation avoids that staid and ethereal sound. Instead, without horns, LeDonne achieves a contemporary and swinging groove, informed by the Milt Jackson conception, warm and soulful to the core.”

While Gribitz may be correct in his assertion that the combination of vibes-guitar-piano as used by Mike in his arrangements for this album doesn’t sound at all like the classic George Shearing Quintet which, by the way, I never found to be “… staid and ethereal,” there is a marked resemblance to the album that George did with The Montgomery Brothers for Riverside Records in that each of the front-line instruments is allowed a distinctive voice instead of being blended into a block chord sound as  was so often the case with George’s classic quintet.

Whether it be the three beautifully constructed choruses that he takes on the opener entitled Scratchin’, a LeDonne original that appears to be based on the changes to Just in Time, the four soulful choruses he plays on F.S.R., Ray Brown’s blues tribute to Sonny Rollins, or the knuckle-busting lines he spins out on Lucky Thompson’s Monsoon which is taken at a blistering speed [but not so fast that Peter couldn’t sneak in a reference to Indian Summer in his solo], this CD is an example of the quintessential Peter Bernstein at his sideman-best.  

Spending time listening to his work on this recording will provide all the explanation one would ever need as to why Peter Bernstein is held is such high regard by his peers and why they all, sooner or later, use him on their recordings.

But lest we move on too soon, we are not done with LeDonne [sorry for the bad pun] as far as Peter is concerned.

For it seems that in addition to working in Larry Goldings’ organ trio along with Bill Stewart on drums every Tuesday night at Augie’s, Peter has also been doing the same in Mike LeDonne’s quartet on Thursday night at Smoke, when the former changed its name to the latter.

Although primarily known as a pianist, composer, arranger, it seems that Mike had fooled around with the Hammond B-3 organ since he was a teen-ager. But it wasn’t until the year 2000 that Mike began playing it in earnest once again.

For as the story goes, it was in that year that Smoke presented a tribute to the memory of Charles Earland, one of the pioneering Jazz organists.  Dr. Lonnie Smith hosted the show and, at the urging of trumpeter Jim Rotondi, Mike sat in and absolutely blew everybody away with his playing on Jay McShann’s Blowing the Blues Away [with this many bad puns, I guess it’s time to stop apologizing for them!].

The owners of Smoke are big fans of the Hammond B-3 organ and given the response to the Earland Memorial Concert, they decided to bring in a Hammond and institute a Tuesday night feature with it.

Mike was supposed to do a five-week stint and then turn the bandstand over to another organist.  However, the audience response to his performance was so overwhelmingly positive that Mike’s held the gig ever since.

Perhaps the fact that Mike brought in Eric Alexander on tenor saxophone, Joe Farnsworth on drums and the ever-capable Peter Bernstein on guitar had something to do with the overall and continuing popularity of the group.

You can sample their marvelous cohesion and musical excitement on two CD’s the group made for Savant: Smokin’ Out Loud [SCD 2055] and On Fire: Live at Smoke [SCD 2080].

Concerning working with Peter, Mike commented: “he’s a crisp, swinging guitarist who always plays what’s right and puts it in the right pocket. He reaches for different ideas within the traditional language.”

Tenor saxophonist, Eric Alexander, one of Peter’s band mates at the Smoke gig with Mike LeDonne, has had a long working relationship with Peter. On his early records Eric was described as “a player who stands four-square in the tradition of big Chicago tenors. This is old-fashioned tenor playing: fat, bruising, wide bodied, but limber enough to handle bebop tempos and inner complexities, even if  he prefers a more seasoned tradition.  His laggardly way with the beat makes one think of Dexter Gordon.” [Richard Cook & Brain Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.].

Earlier in his career, Eric worked quite often with Hammond B-3 organist Charles Earland and because the organist also used guitar and drums, Eric developed a real affinity for this musical setting.

Eric and Peter’s initial work together dates back to two Criss Cross albums that were issued as The Tenor Triangle and the Melvin Rhyne Trio:  The first of these was Tell it like it is [Criss 1089 CD]  and on it Peter offers a terrific original composition entitled Minor Changes which he describes as “a minor blues with some other chords in it.” As for the date itself, Peter commented: “I like to arrange whenever I get the chance. It’s a learning experience to find out what works and what doesn’t.”

The second of these The Tenor Triangle and the Melvin Rhyne Trio for Criss Cross is Aztec Blues [Criss 1143 CD]. On it, Eric and Peter are once again joined by tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama and Tad Shull along with a rhythm section of Mel Rhyne and Peter and Kenny Washington. Although the focus on both of these recordings is obviously on the three tenor saxophonists, it is difficult to disagree with Sid Gribetz when he states in his insert notes:

“Peter Bernstein is a great young guitarist … [who] plays crisp clear lines with maturity and swing …. Peter’s solos are an added treat on this date.”

As an extension of their worked together on the tenor triangle recordings, Eric Alexander asked Peter to join him on Full Range his second album for Criss Cross [Criss 1098 CD] along with Philadelphia-based trumpeter John Swana, and a rhythm section of Kenny Barron [p], Peter Washington [b], Carl Allen [d].  Eric describes  Peter’s “clean, true sound, as a no-nonsense approachI mean, you can tell that he really cares about the purse sound of the guitar. He doesn’t use gimmicks and effects to create a sound. Pete just plays pure jazz guitar.”

My favorite track on this recording is Number 3, an original composition by Eric that he describes as being like “… Sonny Rollins’ Doxy but with a shuffle beat.”  Eric takes a terrific solo on this 16-bar blues as does John Swana, but as Bob Bernotas describes in the insert notes:

“When Peter Bernstein enters, everything shifts into an easy, finger-poppin’ groove. ‘In a lot of ways, he’s a perfect foil for John and myself,’ Eric observes, ‘because Peter’s such a melodic player, and his solos are sparse and so well thought out. So here’s really the perfect link to have in there.’”

Ralph Lalama, another of Pete’s tenor triangle band mates, asked him to play on his Circle Line Criss Cross recording [Criss 1132 CD], an album that garner a 4.5 stars review in Down Beat magazine. Ralph and Pete form the front-line on the album in a manner reminiscent tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and guitarist Jim Hall of the famous The Bridge RCA LP of the early 1960s.

When listening to his work on this recording, reviewer Ted Panken’s phrase – “Peter Bernstein elegantly paves the way…” – comes to mind quite often: whether it’s the unison phrasing with Ralph on the opening title track, the gorgeous chords that he feeds Ralph on his solo tour de force, My Ideal, or the way he voices the changes and “comps” behind Ralph that gives the every-saxophone-player-has-to-attempt-a-version-of-Coltrane’s Giant Steps a fresh sound [not to mention the sparkling chord-inflected solo that Pete takes on the tune].

Although players like Eric Alexander and Ralph Lalama are strongly with the tradition of a blues-based tenor saxophone sound, both acknowledge a little of the post-1962 John Coltrane approach in their playing. Judging from the many records that we have reviewed that fit this format, Peter blends in very nicely with tenor players with this orientation.

However, he also works very well with those tenor saxophonist who play in a more heavily harmonic-based Coltrane style; players such as Walt Weiskopf and Ralph Bowen.

Having been the leader on 10 albums for the label, tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf has obviously had a long-standing relationship with Criss Cross Records. So when its owner-producer suggested making a recording [A World Away [Criss 1100 CD] with the organ-guitar drums trio of Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart, Walt commented:

“The concept was Gerry Teekens’ idea so I can’t take credit for that. But I love this instrumental combination …, so I pretty much loved the idea when Gerry suggested it.

They’ve been playing together for more than five years [as of this writing, closer to 20], and they work so well together that it was a very natural thing for us to do this record in this configuration. … Peter, Bill and Larry are the kinds of guts I really enjoy playing with, they’re major league players in anyone’s book. …

[While] I like the bluesy kind of format, but as a listener will quickly realize, I’m into a more progressive thing.”

“Progressive” may be an understatement for a tenor saxophonist who has author a book entitled Intervalic Improvisation [published by Jamey Aebersold], but the point it raises as it relates to Peter is that his guitar work is equally at home in what Bret Primack refers to as Weiskopf’s “… harmonically challenging improvisational structures.”

Walt took the opportunity to record eight of his original compositions on this album, and on one of them, Immortal Soul, Primack commented that “… Peter Bernstein’s solo in particular embraces the passionate lyricism that weaves a seductive trail through the composition’s swirling cadence.”

Broadly speaking, Primack’s description of Peter’s playing is a reaffirmation of the following statement by Pete’s friend and Hammond B-3 organist Sam Yahel:

“Peter is one of the greatest musicians out there. His lines have a beautiful depth and lyricism. The way he gets inside a tune’s harmony is unique. When Peter plays a melody, you listen more than you might under other circumstances.” [Emphasis mine]

Peter would continue his work with tenor saxophonists, organ-based rhythm sections and Criss Cross on Ralph Bowen’s second album for the label – Soul Proprietor [Criss 1216 CD]. Like Weiskopf, Bowen is out of the Coltrane mold but he also pays a major debt of influence to Michael Brecker.

For the date, Ralph selected trumpeter John Swana to work along with Peter, organist Sam Yahel and drummer Brian Blade. In his insert notes to the recording Ted Panken noted:

“Bowen uses Bernstein as a third horn voice at several points …. They’re old friends from Rutgers [University] … but had never worked together. ‘Peter’s sense of time and phrasing are great,’ Bowen says, ‘and I like his comping. But one thing that really strikes me is the way he arpeggiates extended vertical structures in an eight-note type of line to make them feel linear in essence.”

And just so that we run the gambit of major influences on today’s young tenor saxophonists, Peter recently completed work on the album Shadow of Your Smile [Birds XQDJ 1001] with Grant Stewart, whose style if very reflection of the sound of Sonny Rollins with a dash of Dexter Gordon thrown in for good measure.

Along with Peter, Grant, who has to be considered one of the best and brightest young tenor saxophonists around today, is joined by a rhythm section of Tardo Hammer [p], Peter Washington [b] and Lewis Nash [d].

And because of this traditional piano, bass and drums rhythm section, Peter’s role on the album is to become a second front-line voice to Grant’s tenor, a role he assumes with his usual accuracy and precision.  There’s nothing sloppy about his work on this outing that features six standards and two of Grant’s original compositions.

The only disappointing thing about this recording is that it is on a rather obscure Japanese label that has very limited distribution.

Lest we think that Peter has forsaken the “brass section,” and although he has made a bevy of them, let’s take a look at his work on three in particular, keeping in mind that a more complete listing of them can be found earlier in Part 1 of this piece.

While in no particular order, a good starting point might be Peter’s work with trumpeter Ryan Kisor with whom he has made two CDs for the Criss Cross label:
Battle Cry [Criss 1145] and Awakening [Criss 1239].

In his review of the latter for, Matt Collar has this to say about Awakening:

“On his first album of all original material, Ryan Kisor delivers and atmospheric mix of organ-based post-bop. … Throughout the album, Kisor displays a knack for unpredictable, intellectual improvisation. He draws you in with warm, storytelling phrases …. Urging him on are the expansive organ sounds of Sam Yahel and the sensitively funky guitar work of Peter Bernstein.”

Peter is back with his buddy Sam Yahel on trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s Dig This!!  [Criss 1238 CD] about which C. Andrew Hovan declared in his review:

“Dig This!! kicks in with an even stronger soul-jazz formula that gets its energy from Criss Cross regulars organist Sam Yahel and guitarist Peter Bernstein. Back on hand are Seamus Blake [tenor saxophone] and Bill Stewart [drums] to make this one of the best organ combo records of recent vintage.”

And also from is this review of Peter’s work on trumpeter Joe Magnarelli’s Hoop Dreams Criss Cross Recording [Criss 1280 CD]:

“Hoop Dreams, Magnarelli’s fourth date as a leader for Criss Cross … is an excellently executed, emotionally engaging recording. He makes the most of a band of like-minded peers by placing them in quintet, quartet, trio and duo configurations. Along with the lucid melodically fertile improvisations of Magnarelli, the varying formats offer an impression of continuous change with pianist Gary Versace and guitarist Peter Bernstein as a constant, unifying force.

A snail’s pace magnifies every detail of Magnarelli and Bernstein’s rendition of Ask Me Now. Assisted by the guitarist’s incisive comping, Magnarelli integrates subtle variations of Thelonious Monk’s melody and brief soaring lines. Left to his own devices for sixteen bars, Bernstein’s chords and single note passages include an assortment of textures as he gradually returns to the theme.”

And while we are on the subject of Monk, this might be a good time to return to albums that he has issued under his own name and talk about Peter’s work on his latest CD,  Monk [Xanadu/The Orchard], which was not available to the editorial staff at JazzProfiles at the time Part 1 of this piece was being developed.

Eric Fine notes in his April 2009 JazzTimes article on Peter:

“In devoting an entire album to Thelonious Monk’s repertoire, Peter Bernstein joins the small number of guitar players who have accepted such a challenge. Bernstein, however, hardly considers the release to be a definitive work. Achieving such a benchmark, he said, would require a lifetime of concentration on the composer’s music. …

Instead of focusing on the recording, his seventh as a leader, Bernstein spends the bulk of the interview discussing Monk’s compositions.

[According to Peter] it’s very sophisticated music and also very rooted and it has great strength in its simplicity. When I got into it, I found that certain voicings did lay on the guitar because of the spacing. It’s really not the sound of the piano … it’s the sound of Monk plaing the piano.’

Even so, Bernstein struggled at times to translate the music to the guitar because of the instrument’s technical limitations.

‘I’ve always been frustrated as a guitar player harmonically,’ he said, ‘because you can’t play all the notes like a piano player can. The range is smaller, and it’s harder to play closer voicings on the guitar because you have to stretch between strings.”

In the same article, Greg Scholl, president and chief executive of Xanadu/The Orchard and the album’s producer commented:

“I’ve heard other guitarists play Monk and really stress the oddness and the angularity and to a degree I like what Peter did because its very counter to how most people would approach the [repertoire].”

George Kantzer in his review for offered these thoughts about Peter’s accomplishments on this album:

“How and by whom a piece of music is presented profoundly influences how it's heard. This would seem to be a truism, but it is one often contradicted. Case in point: a band begins playing a Duke Ellington standard and there's recognition and approval from the audience, the "I like Duke" effect. When this happens with a singer beginning "Satin Doll" the irony is lost. Ellington disliked those Johnny Mercer lyrics so much he rarely presented a vocal version of the piece himself. Which bring us to Thelonious Monk.

He never employed or recorded with a guitarist (save early bootlegged jam sessions with Charlie Christian and a big band with Howard Roberts) and his piano playing and arranging can hardly be called guitar-like. Hearing guitar play Monk's music is like hearing an orchestral version of a Wagner opera aria; it reveals a wholly different aspect of the music. While Monk's own versions put emphasis on the disjointed angularity and idiosyncrasies of the music, guitar interpretations bring out their lyrical, melodious side. Howard Alden is good at this, but until this CD, the only other guitarist with a knack for bringing out that side of Monk who devoted a whole album to it was Joshua Breakstone. Peter Bernstein's trio approach can be encapsulated in the title of the opening track: "Let's Cool One."

Like Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Band, which also employs a guitar (and no piano), this trio brings out the strong melodicism inherent in Monk's music. And Bernstein is a graceful guitarist who polishes the rough pianistic edges Monk gouged into his tunes, as can be heard on his solo version of "Monk's Mood." The trio pieces remain largely true to the tempos, an important part of Monk's conception, but bassist Doug Weiss and especially drummer Bill Stewart rile up the surface just enough to save these interpretations from being obsequiously polite.”

And finally this summary from the All About Jazz website publicity for Peter’s Monk:

“Thelonious Monk’s music presents a challenge for any jazz musician, but the going can be especially rough on guitarists. The songs are often physically scaled for the piano: those sharp intervals and tangled clusters don’t fall as naturally on a fretboard. So Peter Bernstein faces a basic hurdle with “Monk” (Xanadu/The Orchard), his vigorous new album. To his credit, the translation goes almost unnoticed. What sticks out instead is his soulful affinity to the material and the dapper chatter of his partners, Doug Weiss on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. On much of the album the trio delivers on a promise of buoyancy, swinging as hard as the music demands. Elsewhere, on ballads like “Monk’s Mood” and “Reflections,” Mr. Bernstein plays alone, exploring a host of harmonic micro-variations. And any listener still awarding degree-of-difficulty points can look to “Work” and “Brilliant Corners,” which arrive in sequence, like a couple of speed bumps.”

Also unavailable to JazzProfiles editorial staff as it developed Part 1 of this feature on Peter was his DVD – Peter Bernstein Trio: Live at Smoke [Mel Bay records 2005].  A copy has since manifested itself so let’s close Part 2 of this feature on Peter with Tom Greenland’s appraisal of the film:

Peter Bernstein is the ultimate guitar anti-hero. Without the usual prestidigitation and pyrotechnics of his ilk, without an incessant impulse to chart new stylistic frontiers, Bernstein is nevertheless a guitarist’s guitarist and a musician’s musician. On his first DVD release, Peter Bernstein Trio: Live at Smoke, he makes a convincing case that less can be more, that old can be new.

Bernstein's trio, featuring Larry Goldings on organ and Bill Stewart on drums, has been playing together since the late '80s, back when Smoke was Augie’s. In the ensuing years, these old jam-mates have developed a close camaraderie, honing a collective sound of subliminal subtlety, like an old married couple finishing each other’s sentences. In this edited "set" of medium tempo standards and originals, the trio establishes a relaxed, unhurried pace.

Bernstein is impeccable throughout, exhibiting a natural blues sensibility, a gift for melody, a beautiful touch, and a mature, no-note-before-its-time restraint. His renderings of Spring is Here and I Should Care are gorgeous, and his solo on Bobblehead, a gravy-train boogaloo, is a model of well-crafted succinctness. Bernstein and Goldings work particularly well together, the guitarist’s mid-rangy chords complementing the organist’s left-hand bass and high-range chordal colorings. Unfortunately, a DVD doesn’t duplicate the dynamic range of a Hammond B3, or the bodily impact of Leslie speakers at full tremolo, but Paul Stache’s in-house recording is excellent, with clear separation of the instruments.

The real set-stealer here, however, is Bill Stewart. A ticking time-bomb of polyrhythmic possibilities, the drummer seems to be watching himself play, reacting with surprise and amusement, as if the music is bubbling up from somewhere inside and his body is hanging on for the ride. Stewart’s solos on Jive Coffee (a 5/4 jazz "waltz"), on Bobblehead, and especially on Golding’s Acrobat, are spontaneous and charismatic combustions, eliciting enthusiastic response from the Smoke crowd.

On Live at Smoke, Bernstein & Co. demonstrate the effectiveness of understatement, the power of group chemistry, and the agelessness of good time, tone, and taste.

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

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

To paraphrase Art Blakey, drummer and ambassador of Jazz: If you love Jazz guitar and the music of Peter Bernstein isn’t in your life, you are missing out on one of the best things about living.