Bass Musician Magazine: Jun/Jul 2009 Issue Featuring Jeff Berlin
Jake: In my interview with Mike Pope, he talked about the great classical pianists. His father was a classical pianist, and he spent a great deal of time listening to that genre. One of the statements that he made was after considering the virtuosity and the innovation that these great classical pianists had accomplished, that as far as our instrument (electric bass) was concerned, he felt we basically have just begun to scratch the surface of its possibilities compared to what those virtuosos had achieved on their instruments.
Jeff: You can always do something on an instrument that hasn’t been done. There’s absolutely no way that anybody has ended the development of an instrument. The one problem with most musicians is that their own improvement relies upon what they’ve heard from other musicians, said another way, the invitation of a bass player listening to another bass player. That’s why I don’t play a fretless bass–that’s why I don’t play harmonics–that’s why I don’t play that staccatoish type of thing. Jaco Pastorius’ contribution was so strong, that a whole generation of bass players simply just sounded like him. Every bass player that was a little bit into fusion imitated him. People argue the point, and I don’t mind, it makes for good debate, why deny yourself the tools that are available to use and play. The only answer that I can respond with, because I’ve had this question presented to me before, was that if you take away from a bass player a fretless bass, and gave him a fretted bass, you’d have it, because no one had “defined” the sound of the fretted bass. The fretless bass was purely an innovation of Jacos. Who defined the piano, or defined the drums, or defined the trumpet? You can’t say. But anybody who is historically savvy would know that Jaco defined fretless bass. Think of it this way… an old Precision four string going through a B15 and a player—do you follow what I’m saying—nothing more basic than that….a man or a woman, their amp, and their bass. “That” is the source of creativity. That simplicity has all the potential to lead someone to becoming the most creative musician that ever lived. But to achieve that, you’ve got to deny yourself the easy path, which has always been imitating someone that’s done the hard work for you.
Jake: Wouldn’t we want to take look at in this scenario, the process of emulation, which I think is quite simply part of the learning process. We can capture things, and learn things, which I don’t feel is a negative. I’m certainly guilty of that myself. But I do understand and agree with your point about the need to get beyond that, which many of us do not.
Jeff: Well, I appreciate your honesty. There are players that are still copying the style of the past greats, and have built entire careers around that. How many players are out there building a career on the shoulders of Jacos original work and musical contributions? What you said earlier, and you’re right about this, is that emulation is essential. I’m still emulating Keith Jarrett for cryin-out loud. We do emulate—we do seek out sources in our early formative years, and many times that’s the first source of inspiration. I wanted to be Jack Bruce… I wanted to be Stanley Clarke. When a musician makes a statement and a musician says that this is me, that is the point that separates one from the developmental period to the artistically formed period of a musician’s life. If you hear a musician and hear very powerfully the source of their “formative” musicality, then I submit that these players have a lot more work to do, and potentially a lot of denying. If you see yourself in a void, or a vacuum, you need to fill it with something. My suggestion is to fill it with music. And beyond that, if you’re going to emulate people, emulate people that play another instrument so that nobody will say, man, and you sound just like—fill in the blank. I repeat, emulation is essential—it’s part of the formative process. I imitated Jaco in the early days too—don’t you doubt it. Then I said, oh-oh, too many guys are going to do this, so I turned at that point. Those ten years studying violin in the conservatory gave me enough musical maturity to understand that you don’t make a career imitating another player that closely. And there are several players today, known bass players, that continue to do it. I don’t need to name names, and I don’t want to be rude. I just want to be clear. And the clarity I’m referring to is that it’s a disservice to make a career on someone else’s work. But what I find interesting is that a lot of younger players, listeners, don’t seem to mind. I was just one of the few guys that did. So that seems to be the unique area I embrace. Beyond that, I’m always trying to raise the bar, and my pursuit of that draws me to the conclusion that you get better when you “look” to get better, and really dedicate yourself to improving, and look to do things that other people don’t do. And one way to do that is denying what other people have done. It’s a philosophy. By denying yourself what others have done, you’ve “got” to come up with something. And low and behold, if you dedicate yourself in that manner you will develop a style of bass playing that will be so unique that people might actually start imitating you.