December 2, 2013
“the things that really makes music 'music' are the intangible things, the indefinable things”
“be more creative with less rather then less creative with more”
Peter Bernstein was our special guest for a Master class in guitar at the Hochschule Luzern Musik - Jazz Abteilung in the first week of December 2013.
Known for his straightforward, no frills approach to playing the guitar as well as to the choices of the material and players he finds interesting, his talk revealed deeper layers of a musical process nourished by an appreciation for musical essences.
Die Gespräche werden geführt von Gerry Hemingway, Dozent für Schlagzeug, Ensemble und Kompostion
Born in NYC in 1967, and after a few migrations to Chicago and Israel due to his father's work, returning eventually to NY from Junior High School until now, Peter Bernstein can call NY home with more authenticity than many of New York's musicians who are “New York based”. Of course this significant port of jazz culture and its many traditions doesn't necessarily birth musicians. However growing up in NYC's culture can certainly shape one's insights and thinking as well as fuel a natural passion for musical expression. Throughout our conversation it was clear how NYC had provided Peter's curiosity and eventually his direct access to an endless stream of valuable musical resources.
Peter noted that despite his parents being “unmusical”, they nevertheless provided the presence of classical, pop, and some jazz recordings around his home as he was growing up, including ragtime. And it was that genre in particular that first inspired Peter to play an instrument, which at age eight was the piano. Later on, an art teacher, who sometimes played a guitar during classes at his school, offered to give him some lessons based on his growing curiosity of this instrument. Rock music certainly dominated popular culture in the 70s and as his interest slowly shifted over to the guitar, Peter began to read more and more in magazines about the popular guitar players of the day such as Clapton, Eddie van Halen, and Hendrix and he gleaned from this resource a feeling for the blues as a root structure. He also noted that these guitar magazines offered smaller articles about musicians who were part of another musical culture, jazz, sometimes with spotlights on players such as Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery.
From the beginning of his musical journey he depended primarily on understanding music and how to play it with his ear. And he still believes this be the central conduit of understanding and developing music. He remarked, “I think [developing one's music by ear] is more important than ever, and the longer I play music, and the more I find myself in the position to teach and help people, its all about the ear. As musicians the ear is what we decide to devote our life study to; hearing on deeper and deeper levels. There are certain things about music that are mathematical and finite but when you get into the area of subtlety, nuance [its about the] level you can hear detail, there is no limit to that. One can always here deeper and deeper into the vibrations of things, where sounds even comes from, or how to get a sound on your instrument.”
I asked when it was that his understanding of the importance of the ear as a guide to musical development was really clear and his answer was “hopefully soon” referring to the fact that this is constant process; a series of doors opening to which there is no end. Nevertheless Peter cited an early epiphany upon hearing Wes Montgomery play the blues, a moment where he realized that in some aspects his only guide to understanding was his ear. By this point in his musical development he had already grasped the basic mechanics, form and pentatonic scales of the blues. But in this recording he heard musical elements that were new to him. We relived this early experience while we listened together to “No Blues” from a live date of Wes Montgomery and as the record unfolded he shared some of the details that caught his attention upon first hearing this great master and his accompanists (Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb).
“I think what hit me first was the innate form of how they phrased, and how much sense their phrases made one after another, regardless of the form. Every line has a direction. I didn't know where they were coming from or where they were going but the lines made sense; the story (narrative) was clear.” Peter also noted how Wes, in his relaxed way would settle on just one note or color and play it for a whole chorus, the simplicity of which was completely striking in his first listening. As well, the mystery of how the whole swing feeling was created by the band, which was new in his listening experience and notable for it's infectious feeling of joy.
As he listened initially to this new world of music it was clear that “there was another kind of language, I would almost say a dialect. ....[by listening we can] mimic speech, learning what people say and try to say it exactly like them but ultimately we know that its for you to express yourself, so whatever you learn from other people its about trying to get the idea from it, rather than just, 'when I play this Wes lick it sounds good'.”
In NYC as a young teenager he grew up to some degree in relative isolation in terms of his evolving interest in music and eventually jazz. Jazz did not come knocking on his door or via his friends or the small school he attended. Driven by an innate curiosity he instead went searching for it. This kind of curiosity would lead him to libraries, mostly in research of specific guitarists, which would inevitably offer the discovery of other players as part of the process.
Peter clearly had an open ear. He still enjoyed the rock and blues music that had begun his musical journey but now the list of players he admired and why was becoming more and more diverse. The more musicians he encountered the more he could begin to understand what made one player so different from another. He could hear and appreciate the uniqueness of a Charlie Parker and understand that something made him different then other alto saxophonists. Differentiations grew out of continued exposure to recordings and his ongoing access to so many performances of great players in NYC.
In search of specific skills as a player he sought out night classes in NY on improvisation and eventually towards the end of High School (11th/12th grade) he took a month long jazz workshop at the Eastman School of Music in upstate NY. Here he met Larry Goldings who was a fellow student, and many other like-minded young enthusiastic musicians who were keen to play together as much as possible. He got guidance and encouragement from the guitarist Gene Bertoncini who taught at this jazz camp.
His parents could see that his interest in music was serious and despite any doubts that might have had at that point they supported him studying music at Rutgers University in neighboring New Jersey. There his teacher was guitarist Ted Dunbar along with other faculty members of the jazz department including Kenny Barron. Dunbar stressed the detail of jazz phraseology by taking the classic bebop themes and mastering the nuances of how they were played by their creators. In this respect horn phrasing has natural qualities that do not easily translate to the guitar, and so each theme was looked at as a way to assimilate the detail of rhythmic and dynamic phrasing from other aspects of the jazz lexicon than just the guitar.
We discussed the nature of this very important period of learning about music, comparing some of the existing pedagogies of the time to Peter's reason for choosing the route that he did and he stressed that he wanted to learn about music via “players”, musicians who were active as performers and he was drawn to Ted Dunbar on that basis. Ted also offered a rigorous pedagogy and theoretical foundation.
He remarked that Ted made clear that “there are certain things in music that can be quantified, [such as] the number of voicings you could play on the guitar for a D7 sharp nine, there is kind of a code or matrix, but the things that really makes music “music” are the intangible things, the indefinable things”. This “mystical” aspect of his teaching was always present along with all the musical and instrumental techniques that always served as “a means to an end” to the goal of making “music”. Peter also remarked that Ted Dunbar had a way of playing jazz repertoire that never lost sight of his Texas blues roots, which offers another perspective into how Peter parsed out what was central to the foundation of music improvisation.
Because it mattered more to play with other musicians, Peter moved on after one year in New Brunswick to another New Jersey institution with an outstanding jazz program, William Patterson University. In the year that he was there he would meet many players, some of whom remain colleagues to this day including Jesse Davis and Bill Stewart. After a year, this was followed by a short period where he lived temporarily with his parents in Paris. He described this point in his life as a period where he had more time to fully assimilate all of the information he had gathered in his studying so far, and also as a period where he first learned how to find work and make gigs happen, and by doing so could develop further his musical choices and directions.
We discussed the unfolding process and impact of listening to music by so many wonderful masters both in Paris, during his time there, and then later in NY at places such as the piano bar Bradleys; a well known haunt for musicians particularly at the late set (which began at 2 am) when many musicians gathered socially and often to sit in and play. In this musical context the content was almost always standards. I asked Peter in his process of getting further inside these melodies and vehicles for improvisation whether he ever took time or found important the lyric of these songs. He responded that Ted Dunbar had emphasized the understanding of a singer's musical phrasing to more deeply plum the expressive potential of songs rather than centering all of one's attention on how other guitarists might interpret a standard.
Peter added, “I don't know how Clifford Brown makes that sound, I can hear the notes he's playing but how does he make that sound?” The intangibility of how sound is shaped by other instruments and their players.. “If you can have [the sound of another instrument] in your head as something to aspire too...” this Peter felt was a fruitful direction for deepening one's musical development. Though he held the guitar community in the highest regard, he tended to search for musical sustenance in other instruments or vocalists.
In seeming contrast but actually in more alignment with these tendencies was Peter's eventual tutelage under Jim Hall, who Peter remarked did many things with the guitar that were both very much about the instrument itself but also about much broader and universal musical issues. For instance he would encourage his students to work with musical motifs and put limitations such as working with one interval or one string of the guitar. “[Jim] wanted to take us out of our technical “go to” things, [he would encourage us] to try to improvise and compose when you play and be a motific player...” Peter also shared some of Hall's teaching methods, which included his uncanny ability to find the right accompaniment for every student, making even the most undeveloped player sound good by virtue of how he managed to find a way of comping that brought out the brightest possibility of each student. He was also a teacher who had a genuine curiosity about the uniqueness of each student's musical vocabulary; in other words a teacher who could always find something to learn from his students.
We went on to discuss his first recordings along with some of the many highlights of his professional life as a musician. I encourage you to listen to the podcast linked on this page to hear Peter relay, in his personal way, the musical experiences that have continued to shape his artistry as a guitarist. He concluded the evening with this remark in the context of a question about musical flow....
“Music is an opportunity to be with other people and it's not always about you having the most fun but more that it's a collectively positive experience for the musicians and the audience.”
Gerry Hemingway (May 2014)