INTERVIEW/PREVIEW: Peter Bernstein (Tour Dates London, Birmingham, Barcelona 7-10 Feb)

Peter Bernstein
Photo credit Jordi Suol
"I think what I’m going for is clarity," says a universally revered and liked figure in jazz, US guitarist PETER BERNSTEIN, ahead of two UK dates on 7 and 8 February. He told Nathan Brown, studying jazz guitar at Guildhall, in this wide-ranging interview, that he likes to concentrate on "the conversation between musicians. If you focus on that, the rest will take care of itself".

LondonJazz News: You have a four-date UK and Spain tour coming. (7-10 February) in London, Birmingham and Barcelona, with Albert Palau, Mark Hodgson and Stephen Keogh. Have you worked with these musicians before?

PB: I only know Stephen. I haven’t played with other guys before, and I don’t really know their playing. I actually met Stephen when he was playing with Louis Stewart and we’ve seen each other a little bit over the years, but it’s really been a long time. He contacted me about doing some dates and put these together. So it really worked out.

LJN: Stephen Keogh knew Louis Stewart well. Do you also have fond memories? 

PB: I remember going to see Louis Stewart a bunch when I lived in Paris for a short time. I was staying with my family who had moved there while I was in college, and I was making the rounds and sitting in everywhere, hearing as much as I could. There was a very memorable week in Paris with Louis Stewart and Stephen was playing drums. He was just a kid, you know. He was young, just as I was, but there he was playing with Louis Stewart – the Master – and we kept in touch over the years.

LJN: Your solo guitar album (Live at Smalls, recorded 2012) - What led to that? How does solo guitar playing affect/help your work in groups?

PB: I really just wanted to challenge myself. It allowed me to view every aspect of my playing on its own and made me appreciate the interaction with other musicians when I play in a group. But what I found was the ultimately it really comes down to knowing the song. When you can play a song by yourself… then you know it.

LJN: Do you look back on your Trio album Monk (2008) as significant? How has Monk influenced you? Are there other pianists whose “sparse” approach you are drawn to? 

PB: Monk, he’s a great inspiration besides from just the sound of his music. As a guitarist (especially solo, but also just in general) you have to condense everything. You can do a lot on the piano orchestration-wise that you can’t do on the guitar. The guitar is about reducing things and Monk’s whole piano style was based on not doing everything he could. Monk would play a chord with just three notes in it and let that sound ring out. I think Monk really heard the notes he was leaving out. And as a guitarist I’m like "hear those notes I’m not playing? See how it sounds better without them?" It’s all about those subtle differences.

LJN: What was it like learning with Jim Hall?

PB: He was teaching at the New School when I was there. As a teacher he would say “here’s a concept I’ve been working on” – things such as motivic development – rather than a teacher who says “here’s all the things you can play on an F7 chord”. He had complete and total empathy for you. He wanted you to sound better, but also threw new things at you. I remember feeling “wow this is the best rhythm section you could play with, right here – just Jim Hall”. He played things that were very ‘guitaristic’ (in a way such as open string voicings) yet they weren’t ‘guitaristic’, as in things everybody wanted to play. He found things that the instrument wanted to do, and sounded good in its sonority. He was all about voice leading as well. Rather than moving big chords around, he would do little two-note lines which is really what the harmony is about: movement.

LJN:  Was there a time in your musical life before you played with Larry Goldings?

PB: Not too long, actually. I met him when I was about 15 or 16 and I had only been playing jazz for about a year. I had been playing music for longer, but he is my oldest musical friend and he was really musically mature at quite a young age. He sounded professional, and I didn’t… [laughs] But yeah, he had the composure and maturity very early on. Or that’s how it seemed to me.

LJN: Can you talk about the importance of learning standards?

PB: I think they’re important to learn – it teaches you about how things work. You can learn all the theory you want but the standards show you it works and fits together. As an improviser you have to learn great melodies to know how to take an idea and how to take it through a form.

LJN: What is your philosophy on transcription? There seems to be a debate among those who believe transcription is the most important part of growing as a musician and finding your sound whereas others believe too much can make you sound generic and voiceless?

PB: I think if all you do is transcribe other people’s things, then maybe you will sound voiceless. But you definitely have to do it. I just think you need to transcribe different things and not even entire solos or entire choruses – just eight bars. Take eight bars, look at what it is and what you can take from it, now it’s up to you to make something musical that’s your own from it. It’s about truly digesting something.

LJN: (These remaining questions are from guitarist friends of LJN) The jazz guitar world seems to be filling up with players who have incredible, lightning fast technique, some of which would not sound out of place in the rock world, yet you have remained tasteful and always do the right thing for the music. Do you ever feel pressure from being surrounded by these players? Is your more economical, laid back approach a conscious decision?

PB: I think what I’m going for is clarity. I don’t want to go faster than I can annunciate. And also – are those phrases and words necessary to the idea? I’m trying to get my technique better but I have my limitations. I think guitar is a funny instrument as you can set it up many different ways that make it easier to play fast, but then you need to think: do the notes have meaning?

LJN: You once said that your John Zeidler guitar from 1981 is your “only guitar”. Is that still true?

PB: Yeah! I only have my Gibson ES-175 and my Zeidler, but I haven’t played the Gibson in about 18 years.

LJN: And when you fly with it do you insist it travels in the cabin with you/do you have to book an extra seat to be absolutely sure that you can? How does all that work and is it getting worse?

PB: I try to get it in with me but sometimes on small flights you can’t and you need those really reinforced rubber cases. I would never let it go through a connection without me though. Some guys aren’t really too worried, but when you get there you have to play that guitar and that’s not fun.

LJN: And finally. On stage you come across as totally professional and unflappable. Is there something... anything... in gigs or indeed elsewhere in life which makes you see the “red mist”?

PB: All the time. Of course you want to project some composure but you also don’t want to be too relaxed. You want to be on that edge where you try to play things that are cohesive and coherent, but you don’t want to fall into an automaton. I’m more concerned with the conversation between musicians. If you focus on that, the rest will take care of itself.

There are four European dates for the quartet of Peter Bernstein, Albert Palau, Mark Hodgson, and Stephen Keogh.

7 February Pizza Express Dean Street
8 February Pizza Express Birmingham 

9/10 February Jamboree Jazz Club, Barcelona

LINK: Peter Bernstein's website

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