Saturday, February 1, 2014

Peter Bernstein - Jazz Guitarist [From The Archives]

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

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would be fun to revisit this earlier piece on guitarist Peter Bernstein for the usual reasons of combining its original two-part posting into one feature and to add a video of Peter's music at its conclusion.

In this case, the video is a veritable "digital" feast as it consists of a playlist made up of 13 examples of Pete performing in a variety of settings.

In our humble opinion, Peter is a throwback to a time when melodic guitarists held a prominent place in Jazz.

“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

Growing up in a large, extended Italian-American family, the guitar seemed to be everywhere. The sound of guitar during those childhood years was literally "music to my ears." To some extent, it was almost impossible for me to separate the sound of one from the other.

And yet, when I first turned to Jazz, it seemed to be a rare instrument.

I once asked Joe Pass, the late master Jazz guitarist, 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.”

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.

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 skyrocketed 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 Artist and Repertoire 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

“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 PhiladelphiaPA [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 approach.  I 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 and 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.

1 comment:

  1. He is a Great artist. He is one of my favorite. I have a big collection of him. oc dj


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