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

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