Sunday, 9 June 2013

Jeff Berlin's Low Standards

As a follow-up to our Thunder Row Review of "Low Standards", we were fortunate to have Jeff Berlin answer a few questions about the album.

JB: Thank you for giving me the chance to talk about my new CD.

TR: With so much to choose from for this album, what was left on the cutting room floor? Anything you regret not including in the collection?

JB: Everything that you hear is what I intended to record. I didn't leave anything on the cutting room floor. In fact, I kind of wish that I added another song or two.

TR: How did you choose these songs?

JB: I chose them because these songs are not typical of a standards-type CD. I like to play differently each time that I do a new CD. On "Low Standards", I think that this is about as different a CD that I have done. I like that.

TR: How was the album recorded? Was any of it done live with all of you in the studio together?

JB: Yes! Essentially, everything that you hear is live, including Richard Drexler's swapping of the acoustic bass for the piano during each tune. Richard is maybe the only player I know that is a virtuoso on both upright bass and piano. When I soloed, he played the acoustic bass and then he put it on the floor to walk to the piano to solo on it. I simply never heard of anyone else doing something like this. "Low Standards" never could have turned out the way that it did without Richard.

TR: How much does improv play in the recording of Standards? Do you enjoy straying from the straight and narrow of the accepted arrangements?

JB: As a sideman, it truly pleases me to provide what someone wants from me, in exactly the way that they hear it. As a leader, I take a much more centric position and try to go wherever the music leads me. This CD is all improvised, with a few rehearsed endings or sections that needed cohesion. I never just record without a plan in mind. And because I carry so much of the harmonic weight of each tune that we played, I practiced for a long time getting familiar with the tunes before we recorded them. It is only here, as a leader, that I take such liberties as a bassist.

TR: The album starts fast and lively, and ends on a more emotional, soft note. How important is the order of the songs in creating the feel of the project, and how did you choose this order?

JB: I swapped songs around for a little while, discussing with David Ruttenberg, the producer, what he thought about the order of the songs. This particular line-up seemed organically correct to both of us and so we opted for the list of songs in this order. But, I suppose that it could have gone in other directions. We just thought that a burning first tune might catch the listener's attention and so we put ESP first, trying out other combinations afterward.

TR: Tell us about working with Richard Drexler and Mike Clark. How long had you been planning the project and how did you get them interested?

JB: Richard and Mike are players with adventurous spirits. I've known Mike since the 1970's and Richard and I have worked together on my last 5 or 6 solo CD's and tours I have done with my own band. Their sense of creativity and the bravery to be spontaneous is evident on this CD. We all listened and responded to each other, and I believe that we have developed a sound that is our alone. This seems to happen with kindred spirits in music which the three of us seem to be.

Thanks to Jeff Berlin for answering our questions! This is an album with some real MOVES! Got yours yet?


© 2013 CL Seamus for Thunder Row

Monday, 3 June 2013

Jeff Berlin - Bass and Basser

Album Review
Jeff Berlin
Low Standards
Genre - Jazz

What a trio! Imagine two bass guitars, a piano, and drums. Now, you might not think this adds up to being a trio, but acoustic bass player Richard Drexler doubles on piano. Drummer Mike Clark lays down the snazzy, sizzling rhythm that can, at times, sound like finger popping, or bacon frying in the pan. Drexler's bass runs through different moods: sometimes it's grouchy and aggressive, sometimes tame and smooth as silk. Sometimes he plays the bass like a piano, and sometimes he plays the piano like a bass.

Oh yeah, did I mention Jeff Berlin's in there, too? He plays the electric bass as a lead instrument, and I swear you've never heard such versatility from an instrument normally thought of as a thunder maker.

You've heard the expression, “easy on the eyes” to indicate something that doesn’t take a lot of work to enjoy. This album is easy on the ears. The arrangements are complex, and the listener really has to know their Jazz, but if you sit back and free yourself from the technicalities, it's just really good music. Toe tappers, melodies, and harmonies that, if you don't know a lot about the work of the composers, make you want to look into their music more deeply. Ahem - that would be me, by the way.

Here's the track lineup:

ESP, El Gaucho, and Fee Fi Fo Fum were composed by Wayne Shorter. Falling Grace was composed by Steve Swallow. Vashkar was composed by Carla Bley. Very Early was composed by Bill Evans. Whisper Not was composed by Benny Golson, and James was composed by Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny.

ESP has an acoustic bassline that doesn't so much walk as run. Splashy drums, dancing piano, and Berlin's lead bass - the man is all fingers. It’s so interesting to hear a bass as lead instrument, and another bass as - well - bass. Bass and Basser.

El Gaucho is melodic and fiery; the combination of acoustic and lead bass can fool you into thinking it is one instrument - maybe something like an extended range bass. There's a bass/piano fill in the middle of the song that is to die for!

Falling Grace - the strings on the acoustic bass rattle on the fretboard, creating a wonderful percussive tone. Berlin's smooth lead sings the melody with a range of voices and harmonies that more than do justice to the instrument, and leave your eyes wide with awe at the skill of his musicianship. What I really like about this song is that when the piano takes over for the acoustic bass, it speaks in the same voice. It's an interesting aural experience; it sounds like Drexler's playing the bass on a piano. Add to that the light touch of Clark’s drums and this becomes a special favourite of mine.

Fee Fi Fo Fum features a drumbeat that sounds like a rolling tongue - and sometimes like the popping fingers I mentioned earlier. Berlin's bass sounds more like a lead guitar in places. About three quarters of the way in, there's an indescribable intricacy of tone and space as the men jam together - bass, bass, and drums.

Vashkar is an exotic piano-led piece. Drexler’s playing evokes a moody, atmospheric sensation. And again, we experience the mastery of Berlin's playing. As with every song on the album, he knows his notes, and exactly where they belong. To trained Jazz musicians, this might sound like an amateurish thing to say, but to these ears, his skill is appreciated by how the music reaches heart and soul.

The Bill Evans song, Very Early, features Berlin's bass singing both high and low. I see this song as somewhat of a competition between musicians; Berlin fills the spaces first, forcing his compatriots to find the gaps. Like a challenge. At times, his bass sounds almost twangy or Western, like a Nashville Telecaster. I'd sure like to know if anybody else hears that, too!

Whisper Not is smooth and harmonic. It is rhythmic and more recognisable in its form. I found Clark's drums to be playful and teasing, and, once again, I love the sound of those barking strings on the acoustic bass.

James turns out to be my favourite song on the album. It has a lovely piano opening, a warm melody, and the full range of bass emotions. It sounds like Berlin really went inside for this one; a very moving song.

Low Standards is described as being a collection of lesser known Jazz standards, so it’s a perfect opportunity to educate oneself on the beautiful music that lies beneath the surface from the more famous big brothers on the top of the heap. I liked the album very much and would easily recommend it to anybody who enjoys, or wants to start enjoying Jeff Berlin.

Jeff Berlin Online

The album is available everywhere!

© 2013 CL Seamus for Thunder Row