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Progressive Rock Interviews

Jeff Berlin

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Jeff Berlin from 2010

You've been involved with some high profile projects over the years. I'd like to just mention a few of them and get your most vivid recollections (good or bad) about them.


Allan Holdsworth and Tony Williams?

Tony invited me to join his band in 1975. I auditioned at his house in Harlem and met Allan Holdsworth there for the very first time. I was in the presence of music royalty on drums and guitar. But, I was so desirous to play in a quartet with a pianist for reasons of my own musical growth. I didn’t want all the group harmony to rest on me! I wanted to keep hearing great piano playing so that I could be influenced by the music!   But Tony didn’t want keyboards and for this reason, I left the band. Funny about that, because a couple of weeks later he hired a keyboard player to join his band, due to my pushing him to do so. Later, he and I played in Europe with Al DiMeola, Lenny White (also on drums) Brian Auger on organ, The Brecker Brothers, and Ray Baretto on conga.  That was some band!
MSJ: Bill Bruford's Band?
Remarkable band with a remarkable bandleader. Bill wasn’t just a drummer. He was a musician with vision! From him, I learned how to discover vision in my own musical life. Working with Bill was a lot of fun and a terrific education besides! He exposed me to a world audience who at that time only regarded Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke as the only two super-stars of the bass guitar, until Bill provided a platform for me to be heard. I had my 15 minutes toward the end of the 1970’s because of him!
MSJ: Patrick Moraz?
A terrific guy and a multi-tasker! He could play anything because of his classical training.
MSJ: Frank Zappa?
A strange bird if there ever was one! One day we were rehearsing when he suddenly stopped the band and started to talk about how cheese is so weird! I guess that odd behavior goes hand-in-hand with being a genius because I’ve no doubt about his musical brilliance! I still have some of Frank’s charts that he gave me back then. But, his music wasn’t my favorite to play, and when I asked him for more money, he got so insulted that he fired me, and even wrote about it in his book.
MSJ: You filled in with Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe when Tony Levin was ill. As I recall you had only a day or two to learn things like "Close to the Edge." Was that a daunting task even for someone with your experience?
“Close to the Edge” was easy because it was already in my head from hearing it as a teen. I have this ability to play anything whatsoever if I can hear it in my head. I am quite lucky in one regard; I have an ear that is way better than my ability to play. I can hear anything and identify it and make up a bass part that will fit what I hear. Transcribing the charts of the other Yes songs was super easy, a homework assignment for me, nothing difficult at all. My teacher Charlie Banacos used to assign me transcription homework much harder than the Yes bass parts that I wrote out. 
MSJ: What other memories do you have of that gig?
My first memory was how much fun it was to play classic rock in stadiums. I rarely ever did gigs like this. Plus, these were really nice people! I enjoyed hanging with them!
MSJ: Are there any especially memorable gigs I've missed that you'd like to mention?
Lots of them for lots of reasons! Music has opened doors for me that never would have been opened otherwise. I’ve been to places, saw things, met people, ate foods, and experienced the world intimately in ways that are simply unobtainable to most folks. Music did this for me!

Last summer, John Abercrombie, Adam Nussbaum and I were playing in Italy. We ended up in a very old little town made entirely of stone on top of a mountain ridge just above the Adriatic Sea in the south of Italy. The town was smack dab in the middle of a mountain ridge, next to another mountain ridge. This made the town look as if it could fall into the valley below at any moment. The view was almost religiously moving! On the other side, the town faced the ocean sitting in the center of the half moon curve of the coastline below. The whole area was full of flowers, olive trees, and little farms dotted the coastline. We were escorted to a little patio overlooking the sea and the coastline below. The view was so stunning, so utterly without precedence, that all of us, longtime road musicians, couldn’t speak for the sheer beauty of the view. Then, as we were eating pasta just rolled from dough, cut and cooked about a half hour ago, with homemade bread and olive oil, new wine, and fish just caught that day,  a full moon slowly rose up out of the sea as the sun set behind us. The air was cool, and there was almost no sound coming from anywhere. I was so moved by the whole experience, that these words pale in comparison with the experience. 

That was a memorable gig!

Last point! I always am involved in high level musical experiences. I don’t mean this to brag! It is only that the company that I keep are of such a high level that it is expected that we all perform at a very high level without ever discussing it. This is why I brought up the story about the old town instead of some gig. Things like what we experienced in that old town are unexpected, and therefore are worthy of the time to tell about them.


You've done both jazz and rock. What do you see as similarities and differences between the two?

Rock and jazz are pretty much on the opposite sides of the coin due to the goals that are sought in each musical style. Jazz requires instant creation and rock generally doesn’t. Neil Peart is a great pal of mine. He wrote me the other day and mentioned that he was rehearsing parts that he intended to record on the next Rush CD. In other words, he was rehearsing what he was going to record before he recorded it. In my world, even with rehearsals, I don’t know exactly what I will play when the red light goes on. As a sideman, I love the predictability of playing a part well learned and well expressed. As a jazz leader, I don’t!
MSJ: If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?
Possibly I would be a chef. I greatly admire their skills and when one takes a moment to chat with me, I am all ears! I don’t say a word. Once, I was in a hotel in Frankfurt with pianist Richard Drexler. The chef cooked a meal that was fantastic and I asked the waitress to please tell the chef how much we enjoyed what he prepared. He came out and thanked us and then, a few minutes later, the waitress brought out a couple of things that he prepared for us, things that were totally new. I wish that I could have even half of his talent. 
MSJ: Who would you see as your musical influences - both as a group and individually?
As a boy, I was a serious violin student for a decade. This classical training prepared me to regard the bass in a different manner than other bass players may have approached it. As a teenager into rock music, Cream were the first big influence on my playing. I was astonished down to my shoes when I heard Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, and Eric Clapton play “Spoonful” for the first time on Wheels of Fire.
MSJ: What's ahead for you?
My solo career continues! If anybody calls me to play or record, I would enjoy this. I used to do way more sideman work when I was younger. But now, it has petered off, and for this reason, I love to tour and play with different guys as well if the gigs come up.  Richard Drexler also was also raised on the classics as a boy just like I was, and we plan to record a duet record together of just classical works. Finally, I have an idea to record a CD with other bass players other than myself on every track, acoustic bassists, not electric. I thought to invite Geddy Lee to be the only electric bass play to record with me. But, he is shy to play on projects outside of Rush, so maybe this won’t happen! Oy!
MSJ: Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?
So many that it is hard to name them all. Keith Jarrett, (even though it will never happen! Keith doesn’t play with electric bass players). Gary Burton is my all-time musical hero. What he has forgotten about playing, I haven’t learned yet. Herbie Hancock and I have been talking about playing, if only in passing. John Scofield, Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny and a million other great musicians in many styles. I love them all and I would love to play with them all. 
MSJ: Do you think that illegal downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians? It's been said by the major labels that it's essentially the heart of all the problems they are having in terms of lower sales - would you agree?
It makes sense! If one sells a product and a customer can get this product from another source than the company that produced it, then that company loses money. Business-wise, this can hurt! 
MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
My problem with this is that shows were meant to begin and then end. Recordings live forever, and, nowadays, so do live gigs it seems! I’d prefer to not see my performances floating around either. Some of them don’t represent the “eternal” presentation of music that my recordings do. And even there, I wish that I did some songs differently! 
MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
My nemesis would be Anthem Singing Person. He/She is the guy or girl who sings “Oh, Say Can You See” at baseball games, boxing matches and he/she is the one who ruins the song by not singing the melody. All of them, without exception, are all a singing cliché, bending notes, adding vocal phrases, all cookie cutter imitations of each other! And people eat it up! It is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me when I hear people singing this song this way, not for national reasons or anything like this, but because it is musically awful for me to hear every single singer in America sounding exactly the same way, actually working hard to do it! As a group, they aren't even aware of how cliche they sound! Go and listen to someone singing the Anthem and see if I’m not right. 
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band, who would be in it and why?
In jazz, it would Herbie Hancock or Keith Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Pat Metheny or Jim Hall on guitar. In rock it would be Pete Townsend on guitar, a younger Ginger Baker on drums or maybe Ringo because he is such a legend and his quarter note was to die for. I love drummers with great time, and I love musicians who listen and who know how to comp and solo.  
MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?
I would invite the greatest jazz, rock, blues and classical performers, one big music style enmeshment! No “Jazz Festival” no “Rock Festival”, but a “Music Festival”! It would be nice to mix metal fans with jazz snobs, classical elitists, and blues enthusiasts so that people could share a broad pallet of great players and great musical art! And if I decided to break down and ask vocalists to sing, it would have to be singers who are original as vocalists. This would include Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, Tony Bennett, and if they were alive, Marvin Gaye, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Judy Garland, and Jackie Wilson. Not an imitator in the bunch!
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
About a year ago, I bought some Keith Jarrett CD’s where he played only standard jazz tunes. Every night since then, I’ve fallen asleep listening to these recordings. Because of doing this, I’ve absorbed a lot of what Keith was doing, to the point where I can sing whole solo line sections from many of the tunes that he recorded. 
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
This might be amusing as I am a jazz bass player. But the last two concerts that I attended were a Rush show and a Metallica show, because the bands invited me to hang.  
MSJ: Do you have a musical "guilty pleasure?"
Opera, especially the tenor arias! And Beethoven’s Ninth!  I cannot get enough of the Ninth!
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap Moment?

Let’s see! Pianist Richard Drexler and I were in Santiago, Chile playing a concert together. We were performing a piece written by Brahms called the “Intermezzo in A Major”. We’ve done this piece together for months. But suddenly, in the middle of the music, we both forgot the next section at the same time. We couldn’t save the tune and so we went into the blues (if all else fails, go into the blues). We never played that piece in public again!

The second one was pretty funny when I thought about it later. I play through what I consider to be the greatest bass amps in the world. They are called “Jeff Berlin 15 Inch combos”, built by Markbass amplifiers. The boss of Markbass named the amp after me because I love them so much (they already were in the catalog). About 8 months ago, I was playing a concert in (I think it was) Hong Kong. I played the whole show and couldn’t figure out why my bass tone was so bad. I simply couldn’t make out a single note, no matter where I stood on the stage. After the gig was over, I realized that I never turned my amps on for the entire show and that what I was actually hearing was my bass coming out of the p.a. system flying around the auditorium.

MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
Just to thank people for their support. I’m a guy who loves to play and who loves people who love to hear players. Music is slowly going away. Music entertainment is taking its place. It is so great that there are people still dedicated to music and all the joy that goes with it.

This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 3 at

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