REVIEW: Peter Bernstein at Pizza Express, Birmingham

Peter Bernstein at Pizza Express Live, Birmingham.
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Peter Bernstein
(Pizza Express Live, Birmingham. 8 February 2018. Review and photos by John Watson)

Peter Bernstein’s mastery on the guitar has long been celebrated, but his improvising seems to become more ever more sophisticated, delighting audiences and inspiring the musicians he works with.

As part of a short European trip, he played two dates in the UK – one at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho on 7 February and the following night at the relatively new Pizza Express Live in Brindleyplace, Birmingham. I caught this second date – actually the first time I’ve had a chance to hear him in a live performance after many years of enjoying his recordings, which include nine as a leader and countless more as a sideman.

With him on both dates were drummer Stephen Keogh, bassist Mark Hodgson (incidentally, a tutor at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire) and Valencia-born pianist Albert Palau, and they established a superb rapport with Bernstein in a programme mixing standards and some of his original compositions.

A funky original piece, Bones – a tribute to a much-loved dog, Bernstein told the packed crowd – opened the show, with the guitarist’s long, singing lines adding to the intensity of the rhythmic drive. Even more impressive was the first of many standards, Cole Porter’s I Love You, with pianist Palau in sparkling exchanges with Bernstein, both exploring the higher notes on their instruments, before Palau launched into a long, tremendously inventive solo. Like the guitarist, he builds his improvisations logically, establishing a mellow mood around the centre of the keyboard, before developing the lines and spinning a more complex tapestry, sometimes using parallel octaves to build ever-more intriguing musical structures.

Peter Bernstein with pianist Albert Palau, bassist Mark Hodgson
and drummer Stephen Keogh at Pizza Express Live, Birmingham
Photo credit: John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk
Bernstein himself, though, is the absolute master of the logical solo. He is at once an artist and a craftsman, placing each perfectly-shaped phrase with complete conviction. His earliest inspiration was the legendary Jim Hall, with whom he studied, and Bernstein’s own improvising – while stylistically personal – reflects the mastery of structure Hall always demonstrated. In an interview with Jazz Times, Bernstein once said that Hall “embodied all the good aesthetics about art in general: curiosity, creativity and imagination”. That could certainly be said of Peter, too.

It was particularly evident in the harmonic complexity of Wayne Shorter’s tune United (from the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers album Pisces), with Bernstein quoting extensively from the standard song I Didn’t Know What Time It Was in his solo, playing with the phrases, inverting them, and developing fresh ideas. The Birmingham programme also included a groovy medium-slow blues, plus Benny Golson’s gorgeous composition Whisper Not, and a hard-driving version of This I Dig Of You, Hank Mobley’s tune from the Blue Note album Soul Station.

Bernstein’s own theme Jive Coffee (named after a brand he saw in vending machines in Japan) is a powerful 5/4 piece based on Tea For Two, with Hodgson and Keogh firmly holding the rhythm as the guitarist spun ever more complex lines. He seemed genuinely surprised when the audience demanded an encore, but duly obliged with a tranquil classic: Body And Soul.

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