A Review of Jeff Berlin’s “High Standards”
If you’ve followed Jeff Berlin‘s career, you know he loves jazz and has released quite a few jazz and fusion solo albums. His latest, High Standards, is the first to feature jazz standards and consists entirely of Berlin and his trio’s spectacular take on nine well chosen tunes.
The trio includes Berlin on electric bass, Richard Drexler on piano and double bass and Danny Gottlieb at the drums. It’s exciting to hear the tracks featuring a trio of two basses and drums to hear how brilliantly that can work, and the tracks with Drexler on piano are no less exciting. It’s a fun record with some unusual arrangements and some sizzling soloing.
What Berlin achieves with this record is to prove to the jazz world, once and for all, that the electric bass is a viable jazz instrument. His melody phrasing and soloing is hornlike and his walking bass is as propulsive as any upright bassist’s. Many bassists think like bassists when they solo; Berlin thinks music and plays flowing legato lines and builds solos that excite and build through their own musical logic. He is able to speak the language of his influences: Sonny Rollins, Dave Liebman, Keith Jarrett, Garry Burton, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley , Sonny Stitt and Wayne Shorter. Indeed, he has spent some time studying Jarrett’s music: transcribing his solos and playing them on the bass.
There is a very live feel to the recordings: the sound of three musicians who know each others’ playing very well playing tunes they know as well as old friends. The camaraderie is audible. The group has been playing together on Berlin’s recordings for almost ten years, usually with others, but here as a stripped down trio.
The music varies from a more contemporary to a more traditional approach. On “If I Were A Bell” (taken at a fair lick and as a duo without Gottlieb) and “I Want to Be Happy” Berlin uses an adaptation of upright pluck and slap style on electric. Both tunes are full of percussive momentum and free-flowing piano and bass. The latter is played as a duo, without Gottlieb, and has a joyous gospel stomp. Berlin at times sounds like the Art Tatum of bass guitar, brimming over with music. Drexler is irrepressible on tumbling piano, at times hinting at an afro-cuban feel and Berlin excites with breathtaking runs and bluesy phrases.
Two tunes are played as a two basses plus drums trio and very inventively arranged and played.
“Someday My Prince Will Come” allows both bassists to stretch out and Gottlieb to play with some polyrhythmic approaches to the groove which varies between simmering waltz and a faster swing. Berlin gets to take some liberties with the theme and solos intensely, accompanied by Drexler’s beautiful upright and Gottlieb’s chattering cymbals and rolling drums. Drexler is a bass virtuoso himself, as he demonstrated here backed by Berlin’s chiming guitar-like chords and immaculate walking.
I love the way the head of “Nardis” is shared between the two basses Berlin’s solo is probing and experimental, delving Jarrett-like where his lines take him at times. Gottlieb’s subtle drumming has a coiled energy to it and the track has a delicious darkness. Drexler builds his solo with motifs – such an expressive double bass soloist.
I really enjoyed the trio’s take on “Invitation“, played with a Night Train-type groove and gorgeous mid-tempo bounce that adds so much depth. Drexler plays the melody, phrasing beautifully. Berlin’s slinky motif-laden bass here solo is wonderfully laid-back and, together with the tremendous Gottlieb, develops tension and excitement under Drexler’s fine piano solo.
There is a very brief classical bass-piano duet, Ravel’s “Valse Nobles et Sentimales No. IV“, which works well in this program. It’s a virtuoso display but the musicians never get in the way of the music which is allowed to breathe, with all its light and shade.
“Solar” has a contemporary jazz feel. It begins with a rubato statement of (and extemporization on) the theme on electric bass with shimmering cymbals. Piano enters, at first playing the head in a fairly free style and the tempo gradually becomes more explicit. Berlin sets up a driving walk with Gottlieb playing Tony Williams influenced drums with splashing, crashing accents over a propulsive ride cymbal. Drexler’s solo brims over with ideas and musicality. Berlin’s solo again shows his exploratory side: intense and bubbling the Hancock- and Brecker-like patterns to develop his solo before a dramatic drum solo with a witty accompaniment from bass and piano.
The ballad, “Body and Soul“, manages to be modern and Ellingtonian simultaneously. It begins with abstract piano ripples from which Strayhorn’s gorgeous theme emerges, phrased exquisitely by Berlin. Is bass tone is quite lovely, his tone has such a clarity on this record. Drexler’s probing piano solo is accompanied by relaxed playing, pedal tones, slides and subtle legato fills from Berlin. Berlin’s own solo is lyrical and laid-back, building to expressive flourishes.
Before Coleman Hawkins’ legendary recording of “Body and Soul” in 1939, tenor saxophone was considered a novelty instrument in jazz and Hawkins’ fabulous solo led to an acceptance of the tenor as a mainstream jazz instrument. Perhaps Berlin’s recording will lead to increased respect for the bass guitar in jazz.
“Groovin’ High” is one of my favorite bebop tunes and the trio take Gillespie’s tune at a very high tempo seemingly with a point to prove. This is intense bebop. The head is shared between bass and drums before Berlin takes off. His solo pushes the beat (contrasting with the laid back approach on other tunes). He has a horn-like intensity as he launches headlong into strings of Charlie Parker influenced lines with astounding virtuosity and slick phrasing that has to be heard to be believed.
I had a lot of fun listening to this record and it’ll be one I return to often. It’s brimming with joyous intensity and love of life and music. There seems like an awful lot of music compressed into an hour or so. This is music made for the love of it.
High Standards Track List
1. Groovin’ High
3. I Want to Be Happy
4. Body and Soul
7. If I Were a Bell
8. Valse Nobles et Sentimales No. IV
9. Someday My Prince Will Come
High Standards is available at CD Baby.