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 CafĂ© 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.