Interview with Bassist Jeff Berlin –
Jeff Berlin always has been and continues to be a very strong voice in the Bass community, whether it’s his musical voice, or the one we’ve heard many times over the years in countless interviews, discussions, and clinics. Superlatives such as outspoken, controversial, and yes even stubborn seem to be the introduction that inevitably surrounds him. But after speaking at great length with him in our interview, I’m going with…..direct, articulate, and sincerely concerned, for my personal opening.
The heart of any true controversy lies within genuine concern, and in these times that we’re in, musically as well as culturally speaking, I’ll take as much controversy as I can get. Being engaged is being involved, and Jeff’s contributions over the years to music both on and off his instrument are an undeniable part of the evolution and historical growth of the electric bass. After decades of involvement in the arts he looks to his music and his playing with the same youthful eyes of enthusiasm that he had in the Holdsworth and Bruford days, with a practice schedule that probably rivals most of his students, and an obvious desire to continue to push the envelope for himself as a composer. His solo pieces are an exercise in creative musicality where technique completely bows out of sight to the strength of the composition (no easy task).
I think it would be safe to say that most players in general that came up in his era would probably be falling under the where are they now category. So, where is Jeff now? He’s immersed in his writing—he still practices with a ‘raise the bar on yourself’ mantra—he’s getting thousands of YouTube hits—he runs the Players School of Music—he’s raising his two boys, and planning a tour both stateside and in Europe with some of the finest players on the planet.
Longevity is one thing… being at the top of your game after watching almost a full generation go by defies any one-word definition I could use. He’s quite simply here to stay.
Jake: The music industry has gone through a tremendous amount of change over the last few decades, which I’ve talked about with many of your colleagues in my interviews. I read a quote of yours saying that this is an era of anti-music. Personally I hear you clearly, but I wonder if you would elaborate on that thought for our readers.
Jeff: Well, it’s several fold. This is an era where being a good musician, a player, is not important anymore. It’s rare that a guitar player will be lauded and recognized for their talent—it happens, because it “is” the music industry, but it’s rare. There really haven’t been any unique players in contemporary music in the last number of years. Actually, I’d have to say bass players have done better in that respect than any other instrument. The industry is a pop industry, a vocal industry, a youth orientated industry—it is not a music industry. Basically, music has nothing to do with the music industry anymore…. It’s about “entertainment”. In wrestling, I would agree that the wrestlers are athletic and skilled at what they do, but wrestling is not a sport, it’s “entertainment”. So entertainment has taken a priority over music. And I’ve always said in this day-and-age that Hendrix, if he even got signed, would be with a small Indy label, and Eric Clapton would probably be down in Clearwater beach gigging at the beach front pavilion playing top 40 songs because the industry has no interest in music. The “music” doesn’t sell—“entertainment” sells.
Jake: Do you see any change at all in this scenario as of late?
Jeff: There’s been no change recently in regards to bass, and it’s an ironic thing because bass is healthier than it has been in probably two decades. There are several amazing players out there that have come along in jazz and jazz related music, performance music, that are certainly pushing the envelope. Two players that come to mind right away for me are Hadrien Feraud and Dominique DiPiazza. These guys have more technique than Jaco or I ever had. They’re phenomenal players, and theres a few other guys that have come a long as well. So the bass world is kind of improving even though the regular music world will never know about it because the regular music world has no interest in bass players whatsoever.
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?
Jake: As a private instructor, is this something that you present to students in the beginning phase of working with them, or is it a concept that you open them up to over time?
Jeff: First day—first thing. When you come to our school (Players School) I tell them that if you can’t read, I’ll help you to read. If you don’t know chords, I’ll help you to understand them. The thing that I allow the students at the school is “not” to do anything in time. Then, I allow them the time to learn these things. They don’t have to learn it by next week; they just have to learn it before they turn 70. And the philosophy of that comment means I don’t insist that my students “get” this stuff. What I do insist on is that they “practice” it, because I know if you practice something you’re going to get it. It’s a fact, it’s a hundred percent guaranteed. So you tell people, don’t force yourself—you don’t have to learn this stuff by next week. All I want you to do is practice this principle. When you get someone who knows nothing about music, you’ve got to give them very simple principles. You can’t give them hard principles. You give them simple music to work on, and as they practice, you remind them that they’re going to make mistakes. Usually, when players make mistakes, they’ll get very upset with themselves. And I tell them…stop…you’re going to make mistakes…it’s built into the learning process. When you make a mistake don’t feel bad about it. Just stop, and review what you’ve made your error on, and sometimes that means review it ten times. So if your head start’s to ache, and your eyes get sore from looking at the music, put the guitar down and walk away from it. And when you recover, you come back and start practicing again. If you practice without duress, and you practice things at your level of understanding, you’re going to get better. And for that reason, and I brag about this openly, I have a 100% improvement rate here. Not one player that has come to the Players School has left without being an improved musician. But that’s the caveat—you’ve got to practice. And if you do the work, you’ll improve. I’ll tell them from day one, it’s my way or the highway. You paid the money, and you need to get a return. You can ask anybody that’s come to the school that’s done the work. We have had a few disgruntled students, but that’s because they wouldn’t do the work I insisted on. They didn’t get better, and then they were talking badly about me. Imagine that. They didn’t do the work that they paid to do, they didn’t follow through with the work I insisted on, and didn’t get better, and then complained that the school didn’t help them out. But anybody else that does the practice always gets better, 100% of the time, on any instrument—without fail.
Jake: There was another question that I had, and I think you’ve kind of already answered that for me, but I’ll ask it anyway. Your Players School has been in existence for a number of years now. Has that time factor altered in any fashion the basic methodology of the school?
Jeff: The answer is no, because music is eternal. What’s better than music? That’s why I don’t have anything to do with tablature…that is a shortcut for people who don’t know music, and probably don’t wish to learn it. They rely on numbers, which is not a musical approach to playing, whereas notes, and harmony, and rhythm “are” a musical approach to playing. Imagine this…they have been teaching notes and music for 300 years, and then somebody came along with a tablature principle and defended it by saying that lute players used to use it. And I’d tell guys, when was the last lute gig you ever did? When was the last lute gig anyone ever heard of? So I’m telling you, people will fight and argue their point of view rather than see the logic that a learned and studied player will be able to have the tools in a year or so that will last them a lifetime. And there are people that are reading this that have a bass, and have been playing for ten or fifteen years, and still can’t handle the blues and a few rock songs. So eventually I’d like to think that the light bulb goes on as far as realizing that you have to study with someone that understands music. You have to study with somebody that enforces the approach and the credo that a knowledgeable musician can function in any situation. A Gmajor chord exists in a Van Halen song–it exists in a Gmajor sonata by Mozart–it exists on a panty hose commercial on TV. GMajor is just Gmajor. But if you don’t know Gmajor, how can you play it?
Jake: I’ve listened to you evolve over the years as a player, going all the way back to the Bruford days. Could you tell me if your personal practice time has in a similar fashion evolved for you as well, from your perspective?
Jeff: It’s continued pretty much the same as it’s always been. I’ve always listened to players better than me. I aspire to play like them and then I look for music that helps me to do that. That’s kind of a nutshell description of what I do. I have a music teacher named Charlie Banacos in Massachusetts. For me, he’s the greatest jazz teacher in the world, and for a lot of other people too I might add. What he’s forgotten, I haven’t learned. So I go to him periodically for principles of music and I ask him to help me to learn new things. He’s very valuable to me. He’s a very dear friend of mine and part of my musical history, and I’m very fond of him. I haven’t seen him in a long time, but we still talk occasionally. We always seem to be pals at the same level. He’s a terrific guy, and again, I believe one of the best jazz teachers on earth. The musicians that I listen to, I guess I would say it in kind of a humorous way, are musicians that hurt me. I like to listen to musicians that create emotional change within me that I humorously called pain. The guy that’s causing me the most pain right now is Keith Jarrett. I listen to some of the things that he does and I’m almost riveted to the chair. I’m helpless in his presence. So I’ve been transcribing him—his sense of time, his sense of notes, his sense of melody, and his sense of harmony. This is the man that is most in my life right now. A guy that I wish I could emulate the most. I never imitate bass players. I admire my colleagues, but I don’t really find that they’re as melodic as musicians that don’t play bass can be. So I have no interest in bass players in that regard. The only bass players I truly enjoy listening to our upright players, which is an instrument I’d prefer not to play because I was a violinist for ten years and don’t want to go the route of that approach anymore. I enjoy the immediacy of the electric. My practice routines are guided by people who are playing things that are not in my life at this moment, and I want those things in my playing, so I pursue it. And I’ve always been good at that. I was transcribing things by Sonny Stitt, and Cannonball Aderly, and then Pat Martino because of the inside bebop that he had which was so great, and McCoy Tyner as well. And then there was Albert Lee, the country guitarist. He was a guy I was very impressed with. I love country players because they’re virtuosos—they play beautiful music. These are some of the people and the variables I consider as far as my practice time goes.
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.
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