Jeff Berlin pays homage to Jack Bruce

Jeff Berlin pays homage to Jack Bruce

By Ross Boissoneau

Jeff Berlin has been rightly praised as one of the world’s greatest bass players. His CV includes work with Patrick Moraz, David Liebman, Patti Austin, David Sancious, k.d. lang, Larry Coryell, Pat Martino, John McLaughlin and many others. He first came to greater public notice holding down the bottom end in drummer Bill Bruford’s self-named fusion band, playing alongside Bruford, Dave Stewart and guitar god Allan Holdsworth, with whom he subsequently performed post-Bruford. He rejoined the drummer for the post-Yes effort Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, subbing for an ill Tony Levin, and has a roster of a dozen solo recordings, the newest of which is Jack Songs.

It showcases Berlin’s reverence and enthusiasm for Jack Bruce. “When I heard Jack, it knocked me out. He had an atypical tone and went in and out of the root, messed with time. Jack was the greatest bass influence I ever had. It put me on this path since 1967,” says Berlin.

Jeff Berlin

Jeff Berlin

Now, eight years after Bruce’s death, Berlin has taken on reinventing the music of his hero. He calls it “the most emotional recording project of my career.”

He credits producer Giles Martin for inspiring his own arrangements of the material. Martin produced The Beatles Love CD, instilling quotes from various songs by the Fab Four into different tunes. Hence this album’s opening “Creamed” includes themes, lyrics and licks from various songs by the original power trio, including “I Feel Free,” “Politician,” “White Room” and “Spoonful” among others.

But this recording goes far beyond Cream, just as Bruce did. It cuts across Bruce’s career, on tracks like “Rope Ladder to the Moon,” from Bruce’s first solo album Songs from a Tailor. Covered previously by Brian Auger and Julie Tippets on their album Encore and by Bruce himself with the HR-Bigband, this version features onetime Augur and Santana vocalist Alex Ligertwood.

“One Without a Word” meshes “One” from Out of the Storm and “Without a Word,” from How’s Tricks, Bruce’s fourth and fifth solo albums. Ron Hemby supplies lead vocals as on “Creamed” and several other tracks, while Sammy Hagar is front and center on “L’Angelo Misterioso.”

The concluding “Fuimus” finds Berlin himself singing lead (he added backing vocals as well as keyboards on several of the other tunes). It’s vaguely disappointing vocally, as Berlin supplied fine leads on the last Bruford studio release, Gradually Going Tornado. But the title, derived from the motto “We have been” from Scotland’s Clan Bruce, and Berlin’s melodic bass playing rescue it.

Among the guest instrumentalists are Tracy Silverman on violin (Berlin’s first instrument), Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and Eric Johnson on guitar, and various other guitarists, drummers, even horn players. There’s plenty of room for Berlin to stretch out, and on “Smiles Story and Morning Grins,” he enlists a phalanx of other bassists – Tony Levin, Billy Sheehan, Michael League, Mark King, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, Nathan East and Geddy Lee – to play four bars and solo for four bars. “It was a chance to arrange for bass players and bass listeners. Everybody has such a different tone.”

He says such an eclectic approach reflects Bruce’s own. “In the center of his music were these strange and wonderful bass lines weaving in and out of the key, reaching for resolutions and finding them, again, and again. Jack’s playing was a living evolving improvisation.”

While Bruce was his favorite, Berlin is quick to cite other bassists with inspiring him. “I adore bass players. Rocco (Tower of Power’s Francis Rocco Prestia) with his eighth notes. Paul McCartney was melodically adventurous. Jaco – none of us imagined bass like that.”

He says he also transcribed and emulated other instrumentalists as well, mentioning Keith Jarrett, Sonny Rollins and Gary Burton. They all contributed to his imagination and woodshedding, resulting in a bassist who’s consistently at the top of his game, and who showcases both his gifts and his enthusiasm on Jack Songs.

Jeff uses DR Strings both Stainless Steel Drop-Down Tuning™ DDT™ and Lo-Rider™. “I’ve been with them a long time. Using good strings makes sense. They’re very well made.” He also plays basses by the South Korean company Cort. “It’s a Cort Rithimic bass. It’s so excellent coming off the assembly line. It’s the same product that others can play. They have the feel and sound of a 1962 Fender Jazz bass.”

Ross Boissoneau is a regular contributor to Something Else! Reviews, Northern Express and Local Spins. He’s written for the All Music Guide, Jazziz and Progression Magazines, and is a member of the Downbeat Critics Poll.

Ross Boissoneau

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