© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Guitarist Peter Bernstein and author, writer and critic Bill Milkowski are two of my favorite Jazz people.
Imagine my delight, then, when I came across the following interview that Bill conducted with Peter for the June 2016 edition of Downbeat..
What was particularly appealing to me is that in their talk, Bill addresses many of the aspects of Pete’s playing and approach to Jazz that have been of interest to me for some time and which I attempted to treat in a previous feature on Pete that appeared on these pages way back when “the Blog was young.”
Drummer Bill Stewart’s comment about Peter’s use of space; Brad Meldhau’s view that what Peter plays never sounds arbitrary; Jimmy Cobb’s impression of Pete sounding like Grant Green; Milkowski’s description of Peter’s “warm, inviting and pure tone;” Peter’s own thoughts about what it takes to play in a solo setting: all of these comments resonated with me because I had long thought that these and other qualities are what made Pete’s style of playing so remarkable.
This is one of the most articulate interviews with a Jazz musician that I ever read which is a credit both to Bill for asking “all the right questions” and to Peter’s ability to articulate answers to them.
Peter Bernstein: The Craftsman - Bill Milkowski
“THERE IS AN UNCOMMON COMMUNION THAT HAPPENS WHEN Peter Bernstein takes his gorgeous-toned Zeidler guitar on stage. No matter what the setting—whether it's in the longstanding trio with organist Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart, leading his own quartet, playing in Cobb's Mob (led by the irrepressibly swinging drummer Jimmy Cobb), playing solo or performing in guitar duos — Bernstein gracefully gets inside a tune and finds a different path through it
"Peter's playing has a lot of space and vowels in it," said Stewart, who appears on Bernstein's new album, Let Loose (Smoke Sessions), alongside pianist Gerald Clayton and bassist Doug Weiss. "It's easy to get things swinging or grooving with Pete. He doesn't just float over a rhythm section — he gets in the center of it all, time-wise. That makes things really fun for me. The way he plays melodies is a key part of the chemistry of our trio with Larry Goldings."
Another longtime colleague, pianist Brad Mehldau — who appeared on a string of Bernstein's Criss Cross Jazz albums in the mid-'90s and is a charter member of Cobb's Mob — described Bernstein's singular approach in his liner notes to the guitarist's 2003 album, Heart's Content: "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 affectation for the original song and his own personal musical choices for his arrangement."
Bernstein's playing is devoid of affectation and artifice. There are no six-string cliches dredged up while navigating his way through the Great American Songbook. Instead, he lets each tune speak for itself, treating the melody lovingly while sustaining a unique brand of relaxed rhythmic authority, a clarity of ideas, cleanliness of execution and remarkable sense of pacing.
"I liked Pete right away, when I first met him over 25 years ago when I was teaching at the New School," Cobb recalled. "Pete sounded like a guitar player I was particularly fond of, Grant Green. We eventually started doing little gigs around town and Pete was the one who suggested that we call the group Cobb's Mob. We worked a few gigs to start, and it's been 20 years or more now, man. We're very comfortable playing together. When I'm on the bandstand with Pete, it's all good."
George Coleman — who enlisted Bernstein for his recent album, A Master Speaks (Smoke Sessions) — concurred with Cobb's assessment of the 48-year-old guitarist's abilities on the bandstand: "The thing that is so great about Pete is his flexibility. He can play anything — blues, Latin, bebop, whatever you want. And he does some of those old songs that people his age shouldn't know, but he knows 'em."
Bernstein's sonic aesthetic — he plays with a warm, inviting, pure tone with his guitar plugged straight into the amp, sans effects — along with his irrepressible swing factor and his encyclopedic knowledge of just about every tune Thelonious Monk ever wrote (check his brilliant 2009 Monk tribute album on the Xanadu label), has made him in-demand among contemporaries like keyboardist Mike LeDonne, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander and trumpeter Jim Rotondi. And a younger generation of guitarists, including Rale Micic and Rotem Sivan, is all too eager to engage in duets with someone they regard as a revered elder statesman, just as Bernstein once regarded his own mentor, Jim Hall.
DownBeat caught up with Bernstein a couple of days after he returned home to New York following a tour with Goldings and Stewart in Europe, where they had recorded a follow-up to 2014's Ramshackle Serenade for the Pirouet label.
A COMMON THREAD IN YOUR EXPANSIVE DISCOGRAPHY IS YOUR BEAUTIFUL SOUND. OBVIOUSLY, IT'S SOMETHING THAT'S VERY IMPORTANT TO YOU.
To me, that's what attracts people to all the great players in jazz. Their sound is like their personality. You hear Bird, you hear Lester Young, you hear their sounds, it's their character come to life. You hear masters like Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell... and everything is wrapped up in their tone. Tone is a broad term; it includes the sound of one note but also the sound of their phrasing and also their thought process.
YOU HAVE A VERY WARM TONE, BUT IT PROJECTS WITH A LOT OF CLARITY. THE ARTICULATION IS VERY CLEAN.
I'm working on it. I'm glad I listen to a lot of trumpet players and saxophone players because you try to approximate their articulation, which you can't really do because it's a whole different process for making the sound. But if you have something in your head, maybe the technique can be more about what you're trying to play than about upstrokes or downstrokes or technical things like that. But it's really wrapped up in your flow of ideas. And listening to guys like Miles, they seem to play from their sound, where each note is a color, which allows for more abstraction in the music. Then there are guys who play really literal and just harmonically perfect. And you try to combine the two— you want to play with the abstract, where you're all about the sound, and yet you want to be able to express an idea very clearly, harmonically and rhythmically.
WHO ARE SOME OF THE MASTERS WHO EMBODY THIS QUALITY?
I got to play with Bobby Hutcherson at Dizzy's a few years ago, which ended up on a CD [2012's Somewhere In The Night on Kind of Blue Records]. I was four feet away from him, thinking, "How is this man just hitting metal bars with wooden sticks with cotton on the end and making such an expressive statement?" The instrument is just like ... it's him! He's imbuing it with his thoughts and feelings. That's a miraculous thing. The instrument itself disappears when you're talking about a master on that level.
Jimmy Cobb is another, for sure. He was 60 years old when I first met him and now he's 86, and he's still cooking! To be able to grow up as a musician — learning about time, how to phrase, how to swing — in the presence of this master. I mean, how lucky am I?
YOU TOURED WITH SONNY ROLLINS IN 2012 AND APPEAR ON HIS RECENT ALBUM, ROAD SHOWS VOL. 4: HOLDING THE STAGE. WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE?
Getting to play with him and just be around him was a blessing. He's one of the originators of the language. Sonny taught us how to interpret tunes, how to stretch out ... all these things. Being on the bandstand with him, you can hear him thinking, you can hear that he's playing with an idea. That's so thrilling to me.
YOU STUDIED WITH JIM HALL. WHAT WAS HIS APPROACH TO TEACHING?
He was teaching a class at the New School when I went there. He had a bunch of guitar players in class and he would play with us, comp for us, and make us sound way better than we actually did. But it was incredible to be around him and see him make that sound, see how he can listen. And now when I teach I find myself saying stuff that he told me. Jim would say things like, "Playing music is its own reward; don't expect anything from music." Or he'd say, "You can put sounds out in the world and they can be from a positive place or they can be from another place."
Just being around him was inspiring... such a great human being. And he had a genuine interest in what his students were doing. If someone played something that interested him, Jim would stop the class and say, "Show us what you did there." That was kind of cool, He showed us that being a teacher is about being curious and learning as much as you can.
The best teachers I had made me think about choices I was making. They don't have to tell me the right way—they just have to make me figure out a better way. It's like they're telling me, "You know enough already to figure out the better way; don't be lazy and not take the time to figure it out," Jim was like that.
His approach was a very different approach from Ted Dunbar, who I studied with at Rutgers in the fall of'85. While Jim's approach was more abstract — he taught me, just by example, about the connection between musicianship and humanity—Ted's approach was much more methodical. He had books on the fingerboard, books on harmony. He has every chord you can play on the guitar in a book. He'd tell me, "Don't just be a guitar player that's in the world of guitarists. You gotta listen to the horn players and singers to learn about phrasing and listen to the piano players and arrangers to learn about harmony, and hang out with drummers and bass players to learn about rhythm."
Ted was very important to me in terms of showing me that every tune has something to teach you about music, something to teach you about the guitar. I only stayed at Rutgers for one year, but I got something from him that stuck with me for a long time.
TALK ABOUT YOUR AFFINITY FOR MONK'S MUSIC.
I love piano players in general but Monk always really spoke to me. For me, as a guitarist, it was about learning the intricacies of the music, learning what you can play and what you can't play. But I find with Monk, he was about not playing every note in the chord but finding which notes intervallically he wanted to bring out. And you have to reduce on the guitar. You can't play the Bill Evans type lush voicings with the cluster and then the triad; you can't grab all those notes, so you have to think about what to leave out. And that automatically puts you in that Monk zone, in a way, because he was conscious about not only what notes to leave out but how to play each note in a voicing. He would phrase each note in a chord, where he would bring out a certain note in a certain way, which is technique on a different level than just velocity and speed but more about control of the sound.
Ultimately, I found that a lot of Monk's stuff laid better on the guitar than you would've thought. Even in the original flat keys. Because the open strings give you those dissonant notes, which work so well with his music. I think if Monk had played guitar he would've loved open strings. He would've definitely made something of that.
YOUR ALBUM S0L0 GUITAR: LIVE AT SMALLS WAS A TRIUMPH. HOW DID THAT PROJECT COME ABOUT?
For me, playing solo is a brief excursion into the terrifying void of "Oh my god! It's just me out here." Which makes me appreciate the company even more when I get to play with people again. When you play solo, that's really about choices. How do you express the idea? For me, it's about what to leave out without leaving out the important stuff. ... I played solo at Smalls for the early set on Mondays, just trying to tackle my fears of playing solo. So [in October 2012] Spike [Wilner, the owner of Smalls] just decided to record it because he already had set up the mics for recording the set after me, which was Rodney Green's group. So my solo recording wasn't ever intended to be [an album] at all.
DO YOU HAVE A FEAR OF MAKING MISTAKES IN A SOLO SETTING?
It's not so much mistakes — it's just about trying to finish your thoughts and present something that has some shape, that's not just a guy playing some notes and chords. Playing solo really taught me a lot about trying to get inside the song, because if you just resort to blowing licks on the chords, it doesn't make any sense because there's no context for it.
It really made me approach that idea of, "Man, I gotta keep playing the song." Maybe I have one little chorus semi-worked out with some voicings I want to do to interpret the tune. Because once you start to get away from the song you really lose the focus. And with solo it's also about trying to control the flow — when you go into time, when you play rubato, having the courage of your convictions to go in a different direction with authority.
It's hard to do that by yourself. Every decision is on you. You can't react; you have to be proactive in a solo setting. So it's exhausting but it's a challenge that I enjoy.
YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU STILL SET ASIDE TIME TO PRACTICE. YOU'RE ON SUCH A HIGH LEVEL, WHAT IS THERE FOR YOU TO PRACTICE AT THIS POINT?
Anything and everything — from F blues to "Happy Birthday" in every key, to whatever comes to mind. It doesn't matter because, to me, when you're dealing with improvising there's always the challenge of finding new ways to express your thoughts. If you're on tour and you're playing some of the same tunes every night, if it was good last night, the idea is to not play it like that tonight. That's not acceptable. You can't just play the same notes as you did yesterday and pass it off like it's spontaneous — because it's not. You have to get into a place where you play a phrase and you build from that. You're telling a story. What's it about? The topic is the form of the tune, the harmony of the tune, where it moves and where it goes. But you're required every time to be off-the-cuff with it, not relying on some hip shit that worked for you last night.
The challenge is making up a new story every night, together with your bandmates. It's like a game of cards and we keep changing the rules of the game. But it's still the same deck of cards; it's still the same 12 notes. You're trying to express a thought and continue it, and that's a continuous challenge. So you keep practicing because you keep wanting to learn new forms, new material. Because it's just a deck of cards. You keep coming up with new games. And your knowledge of cards or music, your instrument, enables you to keep playing the game.”