An interview with Jeff Berlin: The greatest heights of spiritual musical expression is in front of us … Videos

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Jazz interview with jazz bassist Jeff Berlin. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Jeff Berlin: – I grew up in Long Island and was exposed to classical music since infancy. My father always played it in the house. My dad was an opera singer, and my folks told me that when I was a baby, I used to mimick my father by phonetically singing Italian songs that I heard him sing. This gave them the idea to start me on violin when I was five years old. Those ten years of practice were the greatest musical foundation I could have ever had. I am so grateful to my parents for encouraging me to play and practice

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the bass guitar?

JB: – What started out as an instrument of interest soon lost its allure for me.  I saw the Beatles play on TV on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. That was it for the violin. I chose a bass due to exhaustion; I was exhausted of practicing difficult music every single day and I had the idea that I could learn the bass guitar quickly, a childish view coming from a kid of fourteen years. I noticed that the bass had four strings just like my violin did and I figure that I could be comfortable playing this instrument because of this. So, with the money that I earned delivering newspapers, I bought my first bass in 1967.

JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? 

JB: – On bass? I was self taught. But considering the highly evolved repertoire that I practiced on violin taught by remarkable music teachers and the astonishing music teachers taught me violin when a child, it was easy to figure out by myself the bass lines that were played in those days. To keep me excited about my instrument, I would learn Hendrix or Clapton solos on the bass. Or, I would deeply get into the live bass playing of Jack Bruce, easily the first bass virtuoso in electric bass history. Tim Bogert as well provided maybe the best electric bass solo of the 1960’s on a still incredible live tune called “Break Song” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzSZe7xLUCI Tim’s and Jack’s playing firmly planted me on the bass path that I still walk.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

JB: – Honestly, until a few years ago, I never had a sound that I liked. I never enjoyed my bass tone. I’m not happy with a bright bass tone, a tweeter tone if you will. The late engineer/producer Ron Malo, suggested that I should turn up my treble as high as could be done. I followed hs advise for a short while but, only until I became an endorser of Markbass amplifiers has my bass tone finally entered exactly the area of bass sonics that made me the most happy. Before then, I concentrated so hard on my playing that I completely forgot about finding a bass sound that pleased my ears. To this day, I can’t listen to anything I ever recorded. But at 64 years of age, by George, I think I got it! Better late than never!

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

JB: – It was an on-going process. I was a student of the late Charlie Banacos. Before I studied with him, I would do transcriptions of saxophonists that clearly had superior melodic abilities than I had. When I got with Charlie, his homework assignments expanded to pianists. I have a drawer in my office that is stuffed with the transcriptions that Charlie assigned me to write out and play, plus other lessons that he would send to me to practice. Like everyone else, I would imitate the playing of the LP’s (at that time) of the greatest musicians in the world and I did it every day. Drums, sax players, and a couple of times congas or bongos made it to my listening list. When I was in my 50’s, I literally listened to Keith Jarrett’s “Whisper Note” CD almost every night for over a year. My rhythms seemed to grow as I grew in knowledge of music and gained in experience in playing live, again, just like everybody else.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

JB: – As with rhythms, it was the harmony and phrasing of saxophonists and pianists that impacted most with me. The quality of brilliant melodic ideas that many of these players produced took my breath away. I’ve imitated, transcribed, and copied the greatest players in jazz history because I never felt that there was a bass player that had their capacity to define melody and harmony in so many unique ways. I learned a lot from these artists and when I feel that I am sort of stuck in playing the same ideas, I go back to them and try to learn new ideas. I love to learn because, quite honestly, I am entertained when I hear new music coming out of me.

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?

JB: – Bass isn’t seen as important as it once was. This is ironic because there have never been such an astounding community of brilliant bass players like there is today. The only reliable and trustworthy thing that anyone can do to qualify to stay in the music business is to be the best musician we can be. This entails a lot of regular practice and playing. I know that this sounds like a cliche, but, the better that you play, the better your chances to stay in music if this is your interest to do so. A lot of players might be planning on staying in music for at the rest of their lives. I am! So practice quality musical content every day, play with the best players as often as possible, listen to what musical styles are presently in vogue, and if your plan is to have a solo career, be as dedicated to this plan as possible because it is a hard thing to have a solo career if you are a bass player.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

JB: – Ha! Well, people say that things come around eventually, that music is cyclical. But, if it is, we must still be on the extreme far side of the wheel of jazz because being a jazz player has little standing in music as it once had. Still, people always seem to be attracted to great players no matter the circumstances going on in the music industry. I feel confident that when more and more great players are heard, maybe this can stimulate a change in the recording industry who tends to ignore music for commercial music. Companies make billions of dollars providing formulaic music which, as a business, makes perfect sense. I only wish that a little of that money might go to subsidize the artful group of astonishing players that could benefit from support from the recording companies. Sony! Give me a call!

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

JB: – That’s easy! Teach it to them in music school. If one is exposed to it, it can have an alluring affect on a lot of students who presently don’t know much about jazz. I’ve not only seen musicians change over to jazz once they got a taste for it through music school educational mandates that they have to study this music but I’m one of the those players that experienced from this kind of education. I discovered that spontaneously creating and improvizing music on my bass was irresistible. I am positive that many other young players will find this out for themselves as well. But music schools need to make these studies mandatory as it once was when I went to music school. But, I don’t see this happening, sad to say!

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

JB: – In musical terms, I feel that when you are free from trying to figure out how music works, this is the beginning of when your spirit can soar. This was Coltrane’s legacy; he practiced his entire life, even during the period of his greatest popularity because music counted more with him than fame. For me, this is an outstanding lesson to regard. The greatest heights of spiritual musical expression is in front of us and it is within our grasp if we truly wish to grab it. But, one has to really want this!

The meaning of life? This, too, is easy for me to answer. For me, it is the newly found peace that I have acquired in my life. I was brought up in a dysfunctional family which caused me to feel rage and imbalance until I turned 60. Almost on the day of my 60th birthday, the shit really hit the fan for me! Out of the blue, and with no warning, I fell apart and almost lost my mind. I was in full blown anxiety and I could not extricate myself out of it. It was like those movies where you get trapped in a dream of horror and you cannot get out of it. I’m not joking. I was in mortal terror and could not find a solution of help me. A friend of mine in Tampa Florida recommended a therapist/spiritual guide to see. This lady was trained in psychology but also was deeply involved in spiritual principles.  She helped me through three years of the most graphic emotional pain I ever went through. She did it by making sure that I went straight into any emotional disturbance that came up in me. I ran from nothing, turned from nothing. And by doing so, all my old constructs, my fears that I held onto began to quietly vanish. I seemed to come out of a storm into calm. This woman saved my very soul and I will never forget her for helping me to get my life back.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

JB: – I have hopes but no expectations. A legacy of my therapy, I suppose; whatever happens for me will happen.Whatever comes will come. Whatever doesn’t, won’t!

I feel great and still celebrate this new liberation. I have never played bass better in my life than I do today. I’m writing music that is more profound. My private life is joyous. I’m healthy! I’m happy. My wife is the love of my life. Plus, I might be the most handsome looking bass player in the music business. 🙂   Everything is great! And if some calamity happens to befall me, I’ll take it on the chin. I don’t have anxiety. I have no fear. And, I’ll be honest; I never, not for a moment every thought that I could become the person I became.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

JB: – I have to refill my Xanax prescription first!! Seriously, I have several projects! I am almost finished with a redo of my old classic Joe Frazier, totally rewritten, and about as intense a performance as I ever put on record. My next recording will be a redux of the music of my great hero Jack Bruce. Finally, I wrote out an entire bass educational series for non-readers up to advanced readers which will be available on November 1st. I wrote out an entire course in case bass players wished to improve their playing.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

JB: – I’m really not sure!

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

JB: – For the last six month, I’ve been obsessed with the Beethoven Symphonies. I cannot get enough of them. Other classical works enter into my listening, but I can sometimes listen to two LVB symphonies before I go to sleep. Two versions of the 9th simply blow my mind, the one conducted by Daniel Barenboim and the Riccardo Muti performance. I’m not a religious person in the conventional sense. But, when I hear the 9th, I have the most profound feeling that it was here in Ludwig van Beethoven at the time that he composed this work is where (to quote Forrest Gump) God showed up! It is incomprehensible to me that a mere man could compose such a holy and astounding work.

JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?

JB: – Markbass  amps, Cort Rithimic bass, DR Strings, and Babicz Bass Bridge. I realize that tone is subjective. But, I have little hesitancy in stating that Markbass 15 inch combo cabinets are the best sound combo amp in the world. The Rithimic bass as well is the finest passive four stringed bass since the 1962 Fender Jazz Bass in no small part due to the unique invention, the Babicz Bass Bridge. NOW I can say that my tone might be the best that I have ever had in my career due to the gear that I use. These musical technical gems allow me to be the bass players I always wished to be, the first time that I really felt this way.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Фото Jeff Berlin.

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