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In Honor Of Jack: An Interview With Jeff Berlin

Jeff Berlin

It may be impossible to measure a musician’s influence on music as a whole, but when Jack Bruce passed away last year, the world felt it. Best known for his work in Cream and subsequent solo work, the legendary bassist was remembered by his fans and colleagues with outpourings of love and respect on every form of media. Bass players from every walk of life cite Bruce’s work as the motivation behind picking up the instrument, including jazz bassist Jeff Berlin.

To honor his hero and friend, Berlin is raising funds to create a tribute album of Bruce’s music called Jeff Berlin Plays Jack Bruce: Songs for a Wailer via Pledge Music. The record will feature new arrangements of music from throughout Bruce’s career. While the lineup is changing, Berlin has revealed a host of top tier musicians have agreed to participate in the project, including Bruce’s former bandmate Ginger Baker.

Berlin became obsessed with Bruce’s music in his teens and went on to become his friend after his own career took off. “As a kid of 14, Cream utterly changed my life,” he writes on the Pledge page. “Those live performances fit exactly with my budding interest in becoming a bass player. And Jack’s bass playing was astonishing. It was loud, in your face, and utterly musical. His bass playing kicked me in the gut and put me on the musical path I have pursued since those innocent days when I worshipped his playing, the only bass god that I ever had in my life.”

We reached out to Berlin to get the scoop on the new album, his take on working with Ginger Baker, and his favorite Jack Bruce story.

It’s been pretty well documented that Jack Bruce was a huge influence on you, but I want to dig into that a little bit. Do you remember the first time you heard Jack?

I don’t remember the specific time I first heard him, but there was a period of time where I was overwhelmed by his bass playing as a young, fourteen-year-old, just-got-my-bass kid in junior high school. I was so blown away with Jack Bruce in the setting of Cream that I painted the names of Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and Eric Clapton in luminescent paint on my wall. That way at night I would shine a spotlight on it to get it to glow, so all night long those three names would glow in my room.

I’d call that super fan status.

It’s ironic because I believe in the organic DNA influence of music on all of us; that whatever music that we tend to play or pursue or listen to is often based in our DNA appreciation of that music. That’s why some people that are into classical music don’t like rock and some people that are into rock don’t like jazz. There’s something, I feel, in the natural physiology and maybe spirit of people that makes people enjoy the music that they enjoy.

When I heard Jack, it was an instantaneous realization that this was a guy that was playing in a manner that I wanted to pursue for myself. I was just taken over by his bass playing to the point where I learned every note. When they talk about transcriptions and websites and magazines doing transcriptions of rock bass players, it makes me smile because anybody who wanted to learn how to imitate a player used their ear to learn it. Quite frankly, that’s the best direct way that a musician can learn how to play in that manner and develop an approach to playing because they’re not relying on tablature or notes. It was entirely the soulful ingredient; the listening-to and internalizing and regurgitating of that music. That’s how Hendrix became Hendrix. That’s how The Beatles became The Beatles and the [Rolling] Stones became the Stones. That’s how we all became the players that we became. We became it from what we heard and listened to. For me, Jack totally put me on the path that I’m on, even to this minute as a 62-year-old man.

Which era of Jack’s music was most influential on you? You’re a big Cream guy, but I believe the new album will focus more on his later work. Is that right?

In part. Jack is an encyclopedia of musical styles and possibilities. He began as an acoustic jazz bass player, then got into the blues and was only a blues bass player. [He] got into Cream and got into what might be considered jam music. They were the first real jam band. Then after Cream he got into electronic music, disco music, latin music, funk music, rock music, horns, organ, drums, percussion, vocal harmonies, choruses…
See, it reminded me of that Forest Gump quote. With Jack, his music was like a box of chocolates: you never knew what you were going to get. So I’m covering – as best as I can – his whole career with a single “chocolate” representing a certain part of it. I’ll have one “chocolate” that represents his time before Cream. I even have one that more or less that represents Cream, and the rest of the “chocolates” are going to represent at least smidgens of the music that he wrote that followed it.

There’s no way I can possibly do justice to all of the music that he came up with, and I don’t think that it’s necessary. What I did with the arrangements of Jack’s music was to emotionally respect it. To Every song will be it’s own little universe. I intend to make each song so special that the subsequent song will hopefully be so special that the third song and the fourth and the fifth… each song needs to be special because I can’t make a theme record, per se, without making each portion of the theme unique. Jack was so unique and so influential on me [and] everybody from my age group.

Jack was my friend and when he died it hurt me very deeply. It actually put me into a little depression because I am what I am as a musician because of him.

How did you get the news of his passing?

I was in Germany on a tour with Dennis Chambers and Scott Henderson. My wife and I were walking around a village and I got a text message from Joel McIver at Bass Guitar Magazine in London, advising me that Jack had passed. Gaby looked at me and said, “Are you okay?” and, man, I was not okay. I tried to behave as if I was. Two days after I got hospitalized with vertigo. I got vertigo so bad that I was hospitalized. I can’t say it happened because of the loss of Jack, but I have to say that I was so shaken up by it that it may have contributed in some way. I believe that we get sick or physically respond to our emotional states.

Anyway, when he died, I wanted to do something to honor him because there’s a lot of us [that loved him]. Geddy Lee loved him, Flea loved him, McCartney… Ringo used him. In jazz, Tony Williams and John McLaughlin. I mean, the list of Jack’s colleagues and admirers is long and profound. I was one of them and we were friends.

How did you meet him?

Jack Bruce and Jeff BerlinI could meet Jack Nicholson, shake his hand and say, “I like your movies.” I could meet President Obama and say, “Yep, you’re doing a really great job, sir.” I met Jack Bruce and I was shaking in my shoes. How it happened was I was in England around the Bruford time and I was with one of England’s finest drummers, named John Hiseman. He is one of the greatest drummers to come out of England, in my opinion. We were friends and he used to play with Jack. I mentioned my love for Jack and [John] said, “Do you want to come down and meet him?” I said yes. Jack came down to Ronnie Scott’s to meet me. At that time, I was an up-and-coming guy and my name was out there a little bit for the frenetic, young bass playing that I had at that time. We clicked right away; he was a funny guy and he did things to make me laugh. He was a sweetheart of a guy. We were friends instantly.

I played with him afterward. I was in a trio with he and a drummer named Bruce Gary from The Knack, and I played guitar.

I didn’t know about that. I’ll have to look it up.

Well we never recorded, but we did a couple of gigs. We did it for fun because we would do “White Room” and Jack would have me sing the bridge in the voice of Jerry Lewis. So we’d laugh, and Jack would do hysterical things, too, just to make me laugh. There was a deep love there and when he passed I said I must do something to honor this great musician. Beyond a legend. I don’t think there is a title I could subscribe to the legacy of Jack Bruce that is enough to describe the deep love and admiration for this man and what he created, to the point that this record is only a work of love and respect. I’m not doing this for money. I’m not doing this for anything except to do as much as I can do to introduce to people – some of who know Jack and some of who don’t – that a great musician named Jack Bruce once walked among us and this is some of the music that he has done, and here is my interpretation of it.

How do you see your styles blending in that way for these arrangements?

Well, when a musician extracts himself out of the place where they do an imitation of that person and puts themselves in a place where they encompass the entire musical song. I don’t wish to cover Jack’s bass playing as Jack. I’m not doing a cover record, and this is important to make clear. I’m not a big fan of cover music because I honestly think for the most part that most [music that is covered] was better done than the covers that followed them.

Take the Beatles’s Love. Giles Martin, George Martin’s son, produced for Cirque Du Soleil an entire new interpretation of Beatles music by putting many songs as a kind of a menage of themes coming and going and manipulating the tempos and the keys to make them all work as a cohesive piece. This impressed me greatly. In fact, I think Giles did one of the greatest miracles: he took the greatest music ever written in pop – Beatles music – and presented them utterly and absolutely in a fresh manner.

So when I do this record, I’m not actually going in as the bass player covering the lines of Jack Bruce. What I’m rather looking to do is be the arranger/bandleader who coincidentally also plays bass. This won’t be a bass record per se, although I like to really play good bass parts on records and I’m dedicated to that. But it’s really more about the song, the arrangement, the sounds of the instruments, the new harmonies I’m occasionally introducing, new versions of the music, [but] nothing drastically altering the music because then it’s not recognizable. You can’t take “Sunshine of Your Love” and put it into a cha-cha in 7/8 and expect somebody to enjoy it.

That’s not what I’m going to do, yet I have a very interesting plan for the Cream version of his career. It was a temporary period. Jack was 71 when he passed. He was in Cream for two years, and that was it. In essence, this album is not a Cream retrospective. Although it affected everybody, Jack deserves more on this recording than me to say, “Look at how I interpreted ‘Politician’” or some such thing. This is way beyond that. That’s why I’m enthused by it and that’s why I’m working hard to solicit people to pre-buy a CD. This is going to be for me my finest work and I’ve barely written a note. I’ve written some sections, but I added it just to alter the flavor of the music a little. It is essentially 98% Jack Bruce and 2% my few bars here and there. It’s totally my vision to arrange it differently and to use different instrumentalists to play the music.

You’ve got a pretty high profile list of players lined up. Will there be a core group of musicians or will it be different people on every track?

This work is still a work in progress in regards to the people that are playing. I was fortunate to get Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers because I heard Chad play in a big band. Neil Peart called me to play bass for him when he was asked to play a Buddy Rich concert one time and for his section he asked me to play bass. He was playing with a big band and horns, then I heard Chad doing the same thing. Chad has a pocket and a vibe and he’s one badass rock drummer. He can play. Guys that function in a band like the Red Hot Chili Peppers often only play music that’s required for the group, but Chad can do a lot more. He’s going to be the drummer. Ginger Baker will play one or two tracks.

I have a few sidemen guitarists that will play parts, but they’re not name guys because I can’t expect a guy like Jeff Beck to come in and play chords, although I would like him to do it. I would like guys to be out of their comfort zones and also in their comfort zones. Jeff Beck functions as Jeff Beck because it’s the only way he knows how. Allan Holdsworth is going to be one of the main soloists on [the album].

Paul Shaffer is quite a talented organ player. He’s also a great arranger and a great band leader. Jack’s music harmonically is not so hard that a really good sideman organist couldn’t make good musical use of the chords and the melody that Jack wrote. I also have a couple of synth guys that I’m going to use. I have a great piano player I’m going to use named Richard Drexler, who has played a lot with me.

I have several vocalists that I’m looking for, but I’m not very good at knowing who might sing this stuff. Jack was such an astonishing vocalist that I’m having a little trouble deciding who would be the vocalist. There’s different players that I’m still in touch.

I’m looking for other people. I’d like Clapton to play, but I’m not sure that he will. I want Ringo Starr on one or two tunes because Ringo plays perfectly in certain styles of this music. I’m just fortunate to be in charge of [the project]. I’m a good bandleader. A lot of great players sometimes don’t know how to lead a band. They’re such great players but leading a band requires a vision above and beyond the players. I’m good at that, so I’m looking forward to exercising that part of my musical ability.

At the end of the day I can never tolerate anything other than a stellar performance by myself and all my cohorts that are playing with me. This thing is built upon the foundation of great musicians playing great music. It’s going to be a slamming musical statement and I barely had to do any work to arrange it. It poured out of me. I did the arranging for the whole record in two weeks. What followed was me tidying up things, but the thing itself just poured out. It was the fastest bit of work I ever did. I did twelve tunes in two weeks.

Ginger and Jack had their own issues, and Ginger has a reputation for being tough to work with. Is there any worry about that?

No, none at all. Ginger is a professional musicians. He’s the guy that is most famous these days for Beware of Mr. Baker, but I’ve been in touch with him for a little bit and I’ve never had that problem. There is a kind of a funny story to share, though.

Many years ago, Ginger played at the Palomino club in North Hollywood and I went down to see him. His band knew me, but Ginger had never heard of me. So I walked backstage and walked up to him. I said, “Excuse me, Mr. Baker, but before you tell me to go [expletive] off, my name is Jeff Berlin and I’m really pleased to meet you.” He looked at me and he smiled and said, “[Expletive] off!” [laughs] So later, some guys must have told him about me because he walked up to me, gave me his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ginger. It’s nice to meet you.” So my experience with him has been that he’s very forthcoming and a nice cat.

I understand Baker and his curmudgeonly ways, while not necessarily tolerable. Anybody who can rise above the “taking-it-personal” stage can really deal with a lot of people as they are. Ginger is a surly, salty guy, but he’s not entirely Hermann Göring. There’s a sweet, soft, nice man in there. A good, loving guy that might be damaged goods in some regard, but aren’t we all?

So I don’t take it personally, especially now in this time of my life. Once, I used to take everything personally and now I barely ever take anything personally. I’ll work with Baker with great joy. If he says, “Hey Berlin, [expletive] off,” I’ll laugh and say, “Well, Ginger, sorry. I’m not going to, so try that rata tat tat again.” [laughs]

Is this your first crowdfunded album? How is that going for you so far?

It is going well. There is a great bit of file-sharing going on in the world and it has caused a downtrend in music where musicians that don’t sing or rap aren’t regarded as significant as they used to be. Records companies, for the most part, are not interested in great players. You’ll notice that Jimi Hendrix is on the cover of every guitar magazine every single year and has been for over 25 years. I get the feeling that the reason is because there aren’t really any new blood guitarists to take his place, in part due to the non-support by record companies and record industry of great players. In the ‘70s, Jaco Pastorius was signed for the eclectic genius that he was. Today, he would be ignored except possibly by a very small record label.

Pledge Music bypasses the industry and puts in the hands of music fans and musicians the opportunity to purchase a CD based on faith. If people know an artist’s history to provide good music, then on faith they can trust that the next record they are financing will be of the same or close to the same high quality. In my case, due to my rep from the years that I’ve been in music, I can bypass the music industry. Allan Holdsworth is also on Pledge, and so is Jon Anderson from Yes. A lot of musicians are now doing this to bypass the record companies that aren’t interested in us and place into the hands of music lovers an opportunity to do a simple thing: buying a record that they believe is going to be fantastic. It’s like the stock market. If I give you two dollars, I want to get three dollars back. If someone invests in a CD, they want a really good return instead of a poor recording because they won’t appreciate it if they get a piece of junk. They’re emotionally involved in believing something good is coming. That’s what Pledge does. It takes the file-sharing thing out of the hands of the people (at least for the beginning).

My wish is to excite musicians and music lovers to the degree that there’s something so great that’s going to be coming in a few months for the simple price of a CD. That’s less than the price of a guy taking his girlfriend out on a Friday night. That’s what I’m trying to inspire people to do, because if they do it for my record, it’s a small triumph for good music. If they do it for Allan Holdsworth’s record, it’s another small triumph for good music. Without Pledge Music and other sites like it that support good music, great music is in trouble of going away.

The industry is focused on sales, which is reasonable. Sales come from rap and singing and Grammys and dancing and stuff like this. It doesn’t come from a bass player playing a Jack Bruce song, “Letters of Thanks,” in 7/8. But music needs this. If someone loves music deeply, whether they are a fan of mine or Jack’s or not, something significant is coming. I’m trying to inspire people to go and make a simple investment of a CD. Their money finances the session. Without people being interested in hearing something great, I can’t make this record. It’s up to the fans, and I know there are hundreds of thousands of lovers of music out there and they’re the ones I’m trying to reach to help us and the Jack Bruce legacy out.

This is a labor of love for me. I don’t stand to make much money on it at all.

Do you have a timeline of when you think it will be done?

We’ve got several weeks left in the campaign. The essence of this is to hit hard. I’m actually a salesman. “Hey buddy, do you want to buy a car?” But in my case, I’m not trying to sell you a lemon. Musicians are shy to sell because we’ve been taught early on that people regard anyone that sells a product as [below us]. You know, we musicians are supposed to be above selling or shilling a sale. My thing is that I’m doing it and with zeal – real effort and joy – because I believe in what I’m doing. I want to reach bass players that never heard of Jack and have them buy a CD, or every fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, go buy the CD. Or anyone that watched Letterman, go buy a CD. That’s what is going to make this session happen. As the money goes up, I can pay these guys. I can fly these guys in, I can pay the engineer, rent the studio, and pay the producer.

Do you have a good Jack story to leave us with?

Jack knew that I was always kind of shaken by his presence and never could quite be 100% comfortable [when he was around]. He was just too important to me for me to be totally casual, so there was always a one or two percent edge to it. He used to take advantage of my nervousness around him.

Once, in Germany, I was playing and he came in unannounced and plopped himself in the very front row right in front of where I was playing. He looked at me and started to make [funny] faces [to throw me off]. I’m pretty good at being accurate about what I play, but I started to make bumps and errors and mistakes all over the place. He was laughing and making faces and all this stuff. He knew he was getting under my skin, and I was thinking, “You son of a bitch, you’re really working me here.” And afterwards, he came up to me and said, “Oh Jeff, you really screwed that one up!”