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Bass Musician Magazine: Jun/Jul 2009 Issue Featuring Jeff Berlin

Jake: In my conversation with Esperanza Spaulding, we talked about going back and transcribing some of the works of the masters. She was actually speaking about the time she spent at Berkelee. And I thought she had an interesting take on that, being, she was not necessarily interested in transcribing the actual “notes” of these players, but was much more interested in trying to find out where they were “at”, at that particular time in their careers—what was their mood, their motivation, what was going on in their head.

Jeff: I certainly appreciate her philosophy. My particular bent is, for me, it doesn’t matter where they were at, or where their head was at. What matters to me is the knowledge that they had playing over those chord changes, their melodic ideas. Where “they” were at doesn’t affect where “I’m” at. All I want to do is become a better bass player for my own purposes, and the best way I can do it is to learn how to play better. So you have two philosophies now—you have Esperanza’s philosophy of where were they at, and my philosophy which is I want to know the notes. I’ve tripled my bass playing in the last few years because of the unique element of the things that I’ve transcribed. But I’m sure Esperanza’s take on this makes sense for her.

Jake: One of the things that I’ve learned conducting all these interviews is that there are quite a few paths that players have followed and stuck by on their search to becoming a better musician. What works for one might not work for the other. The two points I’ve derived from that are one, there always seems to be some commonalities involved, which in my opinion would absolutely warrant investigation, and two, when I see conflicting philosophies from whom I would term to be seriously accomplished artists, I realize how “personal” ones pursuit of their individual growth is.

Jeff: It’s a good point, and I’d like to comment that you absolutely 100% right, no buts from me. It’s an absolute truth, and there are a million roads. The one thing I would include is when you “pay” for an education, in my opinion, there are not a million roads. There’s a very, very narrow road. If you give somebody a check to learn the language, the truth is, the words have to be learned. That’s an academic approach, and sometimes that’s called controversial. I don’t see what’s controversial about it in the slightest…about insisting that if I pay for an education, I get it. And the education that I’m asking for is the way to play the music. The education that I paid for should be about a musical/educational improvement. I’ve noticed that there is a very broad way of presenting that, but ultimately I’ve noticed that a lot of people who have learned it in a broad way never really learned it at all. So if you’re learning music in an academic setting, it’s a very narrow approach. There’s a Christian scripture that basically says take the narrow road instead of the broad road, the narrow road is the way to life. I’m paraphrasing it—it’s something in Matthew. And I thought what a perfect euphemism for music. If you take a broad approach to music, you are not going to specify anything. By taking a narrow road, you’re going to specify, you’re going to learn specifics with a narrow principle of approach, and that’s the way to life, the way to playing. You’ve heard the phrase about walking the straight and narrow. The expression is clear. It’s a philosophy that teaches us that people who walk the straight and narrow have a full life. Someone seeking a narrow principle implies “direction”. Most people don’t know that, and that’s why most people are stuck in a situation that doesn’t give them what they want. There are lots of well meaning teachers out there, but it’s kind of the blind leading the blind. It happens all over the country in all different forms and many different ways. Nobody seems to say wait a minute, I just spent what I just spent, and I still don’t know what a Db minor/major7 is. And they’ll hear, well that’s OK, they don’t play Db minor/major7th in Coldplay so don’t worry about it, and I’ll jump up and say, if you want to be a musician, you absolutely have to learn this—you must learn this. That’s me!

Jake: Let’s talk a little about the here and now. The economy is pretty trashed at this point, and I know a lot of players from all walks are feeling it. What would you suggest to a player who is dealing abruptly with survival at this point in time?

Jeff: Well, it’s sort of the grasshopper and the ant. If you don’t know how to play, and you’re in a situation where gigs are lean, and you’re not qualified, probably, you won’t work. It’s what I’ve said to people for years who kind of blew me off. If you know what you’re doing, and you’re qualified, meaning you can handle a variety of tunes, or follow the charts, or do some reading, your chances to work grow immensely. So in my opinion there is no fast answer. I would say learn music, and remember that learning music is different than playing it. You can be a rocker on the weekend, and still be learning jazz harmony during the week. So in these times when gigs get leaner and leaner, only the best players are going to get them—be one of them—be prepared.

Jake: With all the years you’ve devoted to being an artist, how do you feel your relationship with music has impacted you as an individual?

Jeff: For me as a human being, music is the greatest, most universally and emotionally overwhelming experience in my entire life, other than my two boys. They beat it out, hands down. But, music as well is one of the most compelling things in my life—I fall asleep to it, I wake up to it. But I also want to be clear that I don’t eat, sleep, drink, and live music alone. But my reality pretty much is, I write all day, I practice most of the day, and I’m gigging here in the states and in Europe as well. I’m also writing for different projects that are coming up…it’s endless. Last night, I saw a movie where they played the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, and I was riveted. I did not expect to get riveted to my seat. I could not move. I was completely overwhelmed listening to this, and actually blew off my favorite TV show (laughs). This music hurt my heart. Music hurts me, and I like the pain, the stirring of it. Those moments, my kids, and my relationship with music are the important things in my life.

Visit online at www.myspace.com/jeffberlin

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