Song Writing

Jeff Berlin

by Jess Grant

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Geddy Lee of Rush called him "the greatest bass player on the planet." Eddie Van Halen invited him to join his band, and the late, great Jaco Pastorius considered him to be a finer soloist than he was. It is no exaggeration, then, to call Jeff Berlin a master of his craft.

Born in Queens, New York, to an opera singer and a pianist, Berlin has been playing the bass guitar since he was 14-years-old. Revered worldwide for his innovative style, tremendous creativity and breathtaking technical prowess, Jeff has shared both stages, and studios, with some of the biggest names in rock and jazz music, including Bill Bruford, Frank Zappa, Billy Cobham, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Dennis Chambers, Bill Evans and Gary Burton.

Nowadays, Berlin divides his time between the road, the recording studio and The Player's School Of Music in Clearwater, Florida, where he has taught aspiring musicians to "aim an arrow toward the moon" since 1996. Earlier this year, Jeff also released Low Standards, his ninth studio album, and his second compilation of jazz standards recorded with acoustic bassist/pianist, Richard Drexler, and drummer, Mike Clark. Fans are already hailing it as his opus, and it would seem that the endearingly self-deprecating Berlin is learning to enjoy it, too.

For as much as he is one of the most illustrious bass players of the last 40 years, it is incredibly refreshing to glimpse at just how down to earth, open and honest Jeff Berlin is reflecting on those early years spent playing with Rush, Frank Zappa and Yes, elaborating on his decision to record another LP worth of jazz standards, and discussing his plans for the future.
Jess Grant (Songfacts): In 2010, you released High Standards. Three years on, and you have released Low Standards. What inspired you to revisit standards, Jeff?

Jeff Berlin: Thank you for giving me the chance to talk about my music. I always feel honored when I am asked to talk about it. Standards are a part of my history as a bass player since 1972 when I played the very first standard I ever played, something called "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)" in an ensemble class at Berklee. Gary Burton was the teacher and I had never played a standard in my life. That song broke the ice that put me in the direction to play standards for 41 years now. Low Standards is a continuation of my love for standards. Playing them is like being in a candy shop. There are so many different kinds to choose from.

Songfacts: For those who have not yet heard Low Standards: How does the new album differ from the last, both in song choice, and in style?

Berlin: Low Standards is the first CD that I am aware of where the upright bass and electric bass were recorded as the dominant harmonic instruments. This concept might have been tried before, but Low Standards was designed to fully function with two bass players as the dominant melodic and harmonic instruments. Incidentally, Richard Drexler played the upright bass and then put it on the floor to play the piano. All this is live which is why I had to play a little bit of "background" bass. I had to give Richard time to walk to the piano to play. The songs that I chose are not as well known in music except of course, by the top players that play them often. My last CD, High Standards was sort of a warm-up for this newest recording. I love High Standards, but I feel that I play even better on Low Standards. This makes me happy because I imagine that all players would like to believe that they are getting better as they continue in their playing careers.

Songfacts: The album features three Wayne Shorter compositions: "El Gaucho," "Fee Fi Fo Fum" and "E.S.P." Out of all of Shorter's compositions, what drew you to these three, in particular?

Berlin: Wayne Shorter is a great hero to me. His songs figured greatly on this recording because his writing is harmonically brilliant. I've been playing on Wayne Shorter songs for years because his brilliant harmony pushes me into learning new musical concepts to solo with, which is something that continues to help me to grow as a musician. "E.S.P." is not a song that bass players record because the harmony is constantly shifting in unpredictable ways. "El Gaucho" is simply a great tune harmonically and melodically. I like my solo on this tune, which is something rare as I usually don't enjoy what I play on my records. And "Fee Fi Fo Fum" is a standard that Scott Henderson showed me many years ago. I found some very interesting chords and counterpoint on this tune when I played the head.

Songfacts: What was the most challenging standard to play on the album, and why?

Berlin: Possibly "Fee Fi Fo Fum" and "Falling Grace" because I had to find different ways to play the song melody that included counterpoint and occasionally harmony that didn't quite sit right in the chords, not until I resolved them. Originality counts with me and I do try to live up to the idea of it. For me, "Falling Grace" and "Fee Fi Fo Fum" represent a totally new harmonic bass performance, something that I am quite proud of. It takes me a lot of time to prepare these bass performances and it pleases me when they turn out OK.

Songfacts: What is your favorite standard to play on the album, and why, Jeff?

Berlin:
If I had to choose one, I might say "Very Early." "James" was also enjoyable to solo on. Pat Metheny is a brilliant musician, I knew him when we were kids and we haven't seen each other in nearly 35 years. I want to play with him if he ever decided to play with an electric bassist again. "James" is a simple tune that gave me a lot of room to solo and not sound traditional while doing it. "Very Early" is also a song that, because of its harmonic twists gave me a lot of pleasure to record. I even did something on that tune that I never did before on any record, in fact, never did before it came out in my solo, which is to play double stops and shift them as the chords progressed. That was new and it surprised me when I played it.

Songfacts: What is it that you, Richard Drexler and Mike Clark hoped to bring to these standards?

Berlin: We hoped to provide something so unique that it could only happen with us. We went with the flow of musical expression as it unfolded in real time. I think that many players that record have this wish to go with the flow and see what happens. As a minimum, we want to represent our heart and our skill. As a reality a little bit. Mike and Richard and I have toured together for a long time and we are familiar with each other's manner of playing. You can hear this on Low Standards as we treated this recording as sort of a gig, that is, three guys playing, listening, and responding just like we do when we are in front of an audience.

Songfacts: Is it a different emotional experience performing standards, as opposed to your own original material?

Berlin: Totally different. I have always had a problem with my own music as a bass player as I write my music first and include the bass last. For this reason, my former CDs are great as written-out recordings, but not very representative of me as a bassist. For this reason, I went into recording standards so that I could be completely exposed as a player, requiring me to be up front, exposed as the player that I was at the moment that the record button was pushed.

Songfacts: Geddy Lee once called you "the greatest bass player on the planet." Are you a fan of Rush, and Geddy's bass work?

Berlin: Very much. Geddy is an explorative bassist in rock. His tone and playing are genuinely rock in nature, and also experimental. This makes for a fascinating combination of bass notes, tone and attitude for his fans. But, interestingly, I always liked other bassists not known as special such as Michael Anthony. I always thought that he was, and is, still the best choice for Van Halen. His pocket is solid and his tone is huge, a perfect definition of a great rock bassist.

Songfacts: You famously turned down the opportunity to join Van Halen. How did this offer come about and why did you pass on it, Jeff?

Berlin: I passed out of respect for the nature of what a band is about. It is not about the money. It is about the spirit and common vision from the musicians that play in it. Van Halen deserved to have the players in their band share their life philosophy. When Eddie asked me to join Van Halen, the musicians were into certain kinds of activities that I was not into. Their philosophy and lifestyle at that time when they were young men conflicted with mine. I will leave it at that. For this reason, I said no to joining the band.

But, today, if Eddie called me, or if any other rock or pop act wanted to record or tour with me, I would say yes. I love to provide what a bandleader or other colleagues might want from me. One time, I took three Norah Jones tunes and overdubbed my bass to her existing tracks. I thought that the result was great, which allowed me to see clearly that I can provide not only what is needed, but if the producer or the singer or bandleader wanted it, I could lift their music in another direction if they decided to have a look. I might put these Norah Jones songs on YouTube if it isn't a copyright infringement.

Songfacts: You have recorded and played with many legendary musicians: Eddie Van Halen, Yes, Frank Zappa, and more. Who is the most inspiring musician that you have ever worked alongside?

Berlin: I took inspiration from all of them. But, I am a musician with an egotistical past, which is something that I regret. I would never act today as I acted with Frank or with anyone else that had the bad luck to provoke that sensitive and sometimes combative ego that I once had. Still, Frank, Yes, and Eddie are cut from the same cloth; they are rock royalty, brilliant in their thing and as inspirational as anyone I ever played with. Once I jammed with Rush at a soundcheck. Geddy handed me his bass and went to the keyboards, Rush was a quartet for ten minutes. As I get older I want to play with different players because now that ego is gone, the love of music is really shining forth in me.

Songfacts: You utilize the bass in an interesting way, often choosing to use it as a lead instrument, and playing lines that would not be uncommon to play on an electric guitar. What, or who, drew you to the bass, and inspired you to develop this unique style of playing?

Berlin: Ego again. When, as a young man, I heard any player that could play in ways that I couldn't, I wanted to be like them, better than them. It was all a competition to me, I am sorry to say. So I practiced, transcribed, studied, and did anything I could do so that I could play as well and as differently as I could. In pure musical terms, those formative years opened a million musical doors. Soloing was the way for me to explore the bass and seek melodic roads with the same ease and brilliance as players such as Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett traverse their instruments. My problem is that I am nowhere even close to their astonishing musical skills. But I figure that if I aimed an arrow toward the moon, it probably will hit a mountain, which is a lot higher than I might have hit if I aimed lower than the moon. Use this analogy in a musical way and you can understand what I mean.

Songfacts: I imagine that you, Jeff, have inspired many young people to pick up the bass. Do you have any sage advice for these aspiring players, who are just starting out?

Berlin: Yes I do. Learning is not hard. It is easy but you have to work at it every day, not for hours, but for a few minutes up to around an hour if you can do this. If you teach yourself, you are in good company because 100% of all players are self-taught, even the studied players. Great musical content at your skill level will improve you in three months even if you never read a note in your life. This is why I created The Players School of Music in Clearwater. My students have 100% improvement no matter their skill when they first arrived.

Songfacts: Many people overlook the hours of practice that it takes to become a virtuosic player like yourself. Would you be able to enlighten us on some of your practice routines?

Berlin: You have to grow into tolerating hours of practice each day. You can't just leap into it or it could be a very uncomfortable experience practicing this way. I had a great piece of luck. I came along during the time of one of the biggest explosions of music fantacism in music history. While I was in Boston studying with Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Smith, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Abe Laboriel, John Robinson, Neil Stubenhaus, in Miami, another group of future greats were furiously pursuing music, such as Mark Egan, Gil Goldstein, Jaco Pastorius, Steve Morse, Narada Michael Walden and Danny Gottlieb. When I was in New York from 1970 to 1978, there were loft jams, gigs all night, and studying all day between jingles and recordings. We were insane to play and to learn. I practiced for hours, played almost every night, recorded almost every day, and studied with all the best music teachers that were around. This youthful insanity for music got me to become the player that I am today. But sometimes you need guidance to know how to begin to learn. My school can give this to you.

Songfacts: Finally, Jeff. What is next for you? Is there another record in the planning? Are you currently working on any original material?

Berlin: I started touring on March 15th in America. It is now June 13th and I just got home from Italy yesterday. I am in Clearwater for the summer to host our One Week Intensive in July and August and teach students for the two month program. I have a clinic tour in the US in September for Markbass amplifiers at Guitar Centers around the country. Then I am on the road with Scott Henderson and Dennis Chambers in October and November. I am finishing a chord tone music book for guitar and bass players, and I am writing music for the next CD. I plan to have my girlfriend Gabriela Sinagra sing on the record as she is a wonderful singer and this gives me a chance to use my bass with her voice in ways that bass is not used. People call me for tours and occasionally, I record with people interested in having me play bass. I am very fortunate at this time in my life. Things are becoming beautiful in my heart and music is a great thing, better and better all the time.

July 8, 2013
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