Bass Musician Magazine: Jun/Jul 2009 Issue Featuring Jeff Berlin
Jake: In my interview with Dominique he talked about how it was more challenging for him being more or less a stylist on the instrument. He felt this kind of pigeonholed him and had an effect on the amount of projects he might be considered for.
Jeff: I’m in the same boat, and I have been for a while. The other day, Carlos Santana referred to me as the best bass player in the world, and I probably will never get to play with Carlos, because Carlos doesn’t need a bass player like that. He needs a good solid functional rhythm section player, which I am, and Dominique is as well. But as leaders, we prefer to do our own thing. The element or contribution of musical “style” means that the musician has two lives. He has his leader life and he has his sideman life, and I was a sideman for many years longer than I was a leader. As a sideman, I used to do Kmart commercials with the Brecker brothers. The other two big bass players on the scene at that time were Anthony Jackson and Will Lee. Eventually I got more into my artsy thing and sort of left the studio scene. The thing about “style” is that nobody really needs it, unless you are so art orientated to such a degree that your virtuosity improves the sound of the band. So yeah, Dominique has done himself a good thing, and he has done himself some harm, as well as I have, an even Jaco when he was alive. Jaco was so new, and so fresh, and yet there wasn’t a whole lot for him to do outside of the few jazz opportunities that were there. And after he left Weather Report he did his leader thing, and even that began to fade, and this was before he had his mental breakdown. He was not working in the same capacity as he had worked as principally the biggest name on electric bass at that time. That virtuosic approach is for us. It’s for me…it’s for what I do. But it doesn’t lend itself toward being an opportunity for other people that may want to use me. So Carlos may call me the best bass player in the world, but he will not hire the best bass player in the world because he doesn’t “need” the best bass player, and that’s Dominique’s problem as well.
Jake: Another interesting comment you made was your statement, “You can’t play what you don’t know”, which I know sparked some controversy. I’d like to give you the opportunity to expound on that particular premise, or giving due respect to you, that particular truth.
Jeff: Well, let’s use an example. I’m talking to you, Jake. In French, say to me right now, what a lovely day……….. OK. You can’t really say it, but some guy out there reading this will say, oh, it’s this, because they know the words. So they can say what they know. How does one speak a language they don’t know? How does one drive to somebody’s house if they don’t know the directions. There’s nothing that can’t be done if one knows the realities and requirements of that project. Music is a marriage of melody, harmony, and rhythm. It simply boils down to the fact that chops and technique are not important to work on. Time is not really that important to work on. What’s important to work on is the knowledge of the words of the language we’re pursuing, and I’m talking about academics here. So if somebody doesn’t know the notes, how can they play? If you don’t know the song, how can you play it? If you don’t know what a minor chord is, and how it differentiates from a major chord, how can you differentiate those two tonalities? Quite frankly, if having this approach gets me in trouble, it only gets me in trouble with people that don’t know anything about music. My thing is, is that I will say things that are utterly an absolutely true, and only people who don’t know about music, or don’t know how to play will have a problem with it. I’ll assume that this generally works—there are a few guys out there that may have a problem with what I say. But the bottom line reality is, people that have a problem with what I say comes from two sources. One, either they teach the way I criticize and they don’t want to lose their living, or two, they criticize what I say because it means that they are going to have to be more responsible to learn how to play. Either way it doesn’t change the fact that a musician plays better when they know what they’re doing, and I’ll use this as an example: If someone is buying a hamburger at a restaurant, and they taste a hamburger that was made by a guy that doesn’t know how to cook, they’ll never go back to that place. Why would anybody hire a musician after hearing them for the first time and realizing that they don’t know how to play?