Dr. Music talks with the jazz bassist about his new power trio, Van Halen, Jaco, and the Grinch.
Jeff Berlin has been called the "greatest bass player on the planet" by Geddy Lee of Rush. Marcus Miller, who is undoubtedly one of the best musicians in the world, once said that he wanted to be the "black Jeff Berlin." There are an overwhelming amount of testimonials to Berlin's greatness, and many of them come from the most heralded musicians in history. Jeff Berlin is a true jazz master.
A former student of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Berlin has also been involved in the education of others for more than 30 years as founder of The Players School of Music in Clearwater, Florida. His recorded works have been considered some of the most melodic bass recordings in existence. With six solo records, and a history of playing with greats like Allan Holdsworth, Scott Henderson and Billy Sheehan, he's ready to take his show on the road. With a schedule that takes him through North and South America, Europe, and Asia, Berlin will find himself playing dates into early November with guitarist Scott Henderson, and drummers Mike Clark (thru Oct. 2) and Dennis Chambers (thru Nov. 5).
With this interview I tried to touch on a number of aspects of Berlin's multi-faceted career. You are about to hear him talk about fun song titles, his time spent with the Van Halen brothers, his signature Dean bass guitar, and the piece of music that best defines him as a player. As you read the words of Jeff Berlin, I hope that you might get to know him a little better.
Dr. Music: It’s an honor and a privilege to get the opportunity to talk with one of the masters of Jazz and the bass guitar. Thanks so much!
Jeff Berlin: My pleasure! I am always honored when anyone takes the time to ask me about bass and music.
DM: First, let’s ask the question you’re most tired of answering and get it out of the way. Tell us how you met the guys from Van Halen and were asked to join the band. And, tell us why you turned the gig down.
JB: It wasn’t for a lack of admiration for the way that they played. These guys were Rock Royalty, and playing with them would have been a ball. I used to jam with Eddie and once rehearsed with Eddie and Alex. David Lee Roth came by and checked out the proceedings. The problem with my accepting the gig was that of lifestyle. I would rather not get into it in detail. Let’s just say that at that time, they were involved with activities that I wasn’t interested in being involved in. When you join a band, you don’t just join it for the money. It would have been unfair to the Van Halen Brothers if I took the gig just to make a buck. You join the entire spirit of a group, their vision and even their joint philosophies. This is what makes a band work together. But, in my case, they were into things that I wasn’t into. So I said no to the band.
DM: Is there anyone that you’ve always dreamed of playing with?
JB: Joe Zawinul auditioned me for Weather Report but didn’t hire me because he thought that I couldn’t memorize the music. But, I could memorize anything and I lost a gig that I felt that I would have done special things with. Pat Metheny and I would sound great together. We did as kids anyway. But he, John Scofield, Mike Stern, all of them, are content with blowing from the top of the set to the bottom without too much involvement from the bass player. They don’t need nor want a guy with my kind of harmonic interest. I lament this because there is a lot of great music that is going to be lost because these guys, as bandleaders, don’t have an interest in sharing the music. This is why they lead bands, so they can do this. I do the same with my band, but I share as much music as I possibly can because how many bass solos can anybody listen to before they go nuts.
DM: Many of the song titles you have are intriguing, or they are often a brilliant play on words with some great humor to them. Tell us how important a song title is to you, and if there is a method you use to come up with them.
JB: Richard Drexler and I have dozens of funny names. We have lists of them and when we write music, we choose something that makes us laugh and sort of fits the style of the music that we write. I like it when things aren’t too serious even while the music itself is strictly a serious business.
DM: The gigs you have lined up with Scott Henderson and Mike Clark are sure to be sensational. Can you give us a peek at what we might hear at these shows?
JB: Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of guitar solos. Plus, lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of bass solos as well. Poor Mike Clark; he fights to get his spots which is totally unfair because the crowd is somewhat bias toward guitar and bass. But, when you are a legend like Mike, you bring in the Herbie Hancock contingency. He is just smoking on this gig.
DM: Have you written new material together?
JB: No! Scott is finalizing his new Tribal Tech record and I am writing for my next Jeff Berlin CD. We haven’t written yet, but I can tell you that when we play, lots of what we do is harmonically quite different than other guitar trio-type bands. Scott is actually a Blues musician, which is interesting that we play together because I really dislike the Blues. It’s a cliché and I don’t like any cliché in music. But, Scott is so special that I can enjoy his blues guitar playing even though the blues for me is a drag. I’d rather listen to country music than the blues.
DM: Will we hear a bit from each person’s catalog?
JB: Actually, we collected a bunch of interesting old fusion tunes and worked them to become our set. Plus, we included a few jazz tunes and some funk, because we have the drummer who practically defined what Funk is in the 1970’s.
DM: Can we expect any kind of new recording in the future with this lineup?
JB: Yes! We love to play together and we are very interested in recording together.
DM: Many say that you have a style similar to that of Jaco Pastorius, even though you play fretted. Have you ever considered recording an album with a fretless bass, and do you feel that the parallels to Jaco are accurate?
JB: I prefer to never record with a fretless bass nor ever play one. Jaco and I came from harmony and the best way to identify your playing is so that your notes are heard. I don’t use active basses, nor amps with tweeters. I play through 15 inch speakers, not 10’s, which seems to be the popular speaker of this era. My tone is a bit thick on the lower mids which Jaco also had, except that he used more highs than I do. But, how can you be anything except honored to me mentioned in the same sentence as Jaco?
DM: You grew up playing violin, and playing it extremely well. Do you still play with any kind of regularity, and would you consider recording yourself doing a violin part?
JB: Violin is an instrument that you can never play unless you practice it regularly. I haven’t touched one since my late teens and have no interest in playing one ever again. I admire the great players too much to tread in their area. No one wants to hear a weak violinist, not when you have so many brilliant ones to listen to. But, at one time, I was a top player for my age. But no more!
DM: We went over the Van Halen thing, and I know you have a good relationship with Billy Sheehan and Geddy Lee, and I see a photo of you with Rudy Sarzo and the guys from Quiet Riot on the website. Your ties to classic rock and hard rock seem to be many. Have you ever considered doing a straight forward rock album?
JB: Only if I am asked to do it. I have to be honest; my thing is jazz because jazz always permits new things to happen. It is also one of the more unpopular musical styles in America which is why I, and other jazz guys, make our living in other places in the world where players are still respected. But, without the guys who come to our gigs in the U.S. we would never play here anymore. Even the President never hires jazz guys when he does his White House broadcasts, which is something that I wrote him to complain about (for some reason he never wrote back to me!)
DM: I believe you play Dean Guitars exclusively, correct? You now have a custom signature model bass from Dean. Tell us what makes that bass your own. What modifications or upgrades were made, and what kind of sound were you trying to achieve?
JB: I have a bass that is maybe the finest 4 string instrument I ever played. Neil Jason, the New York bass player, only plays Fenders, and when he played my bass he told me that he never felt a bass quite like it. It is a low action instrument, passive (I don’t like active basses). The pickups were made personally for me by Bill Bartolini. My frets are wide and as flat as the luthier could file them. I have a Leo Quan Badass Bass Bridge on my bass, something that I’ve used since 1975. There really aren’t any modifications to speak of except I’ve been told that my bass is one of the most interesting looking instruments that one can own. I call my bass the Grinch Bass and you have to see it up close to know why I do this.
DM: If I was to play something for someone that has never heard you play, what should it be? Is there any one piece of music that best defines you as a player?
JB: I would point to Richard Drexler’s and my arrangement of Brahms Intermezzo in A Major. Just a gorgeous rendition if I do say so myself. My work on High Standards is my best recorded bass playing in my opinion. I don’t point to the Bruford or Holdsworth recordings because, as good as they are, my stuff represents me better.
DM: When someone asks me who Jeff Berlin is, what should I tell them?
JB: I am a guy who will tell you the truth. I am a guy who is extremely grateful to the people who support me and my music. I am a guy who is still learning and appreciating this fact. I don’t believe in Peace! I believe in Truth, and Truth is rarely a peaceful endeavor! But only a few people now understand this. Perhaps more will get this point one day.