By Jim Roberts
For most of us, I suspect, becoming a bass player began with inspiration—the work of one bass player who motivated us to pick up the instrument. For Jeff Berlin, that bass player was Jack Bruce, whom he cites as “the greatest bass influence I ever had.” At the age of 14, when he first encountered Bruce’s playing in Cream, Berlin had been playing the violin for a decade and displaying prodigious musical talent. He immediately switched to electric bass.
After Jack Bruce died in 2014, Berlin set out to honor his spirit by creating an album called Jack Songs, which unites Bruce’s music with his own musical vision. It was released in August. Berlin’s model was the Giles Martin album Love, where Martin—the son of famed Beatles’ producer George Martin—combined music from more than 100 Beatles songs in new and innovative ways, creating music for a Cirque du Soleil production that was later released as a CD. “The first thing I noticed was that Giles had found a way to incorporate several Beatle themes into one track and managed to make them sound organic and perfect,” says Berlin. “It was such a brilliant concept. I’d never heard anything like that. I knew I couldn’t just extract Jack Bruce quotes from tapes or digital recordings, so I arranged them to become the music on my album.”
Berlin says he created his arrangements in a frenzy of writing over about three weeks, but the recording of the album took years. Because no record label expressed interest, Berlin had to finance the production himself, “inching along,” as he puts it, with considerable help from a fellow Nashville resident, producer John McCracken. “It was sort of a two-man-band operation, John and I,” says Berlin. In the end, they solicited contributions from an all-star guest roster of 34 musicians, and McCracken also played guitar on seven of the ten songs. “To make it sound organic was hard because everybody flew in a part,” says Berlin. “It was an amazing stitch-together job, but it came out better than I could have ever imagined.”
In addition to playing bass throughout, Berlin played keyboards on many of the tracks and contributed vocals, including the lead vocal on the last song. All of Berlin’s bass parts were cut with his Cort Rithimic 4-string signature model, with DR strings (.40-.60-.80-.100), and a Markbass CMD JB Players School 1×15 combo amp. “We put a mike on the amp or we DI’ed off the back, and we DI’ed off the Rithimic,” says Berlin. “That’s all we did.” He notes that they used “a couple of pedals” for distortion and chorus but that most of the variations in the bass tone on the album—which range from Berlin’s smooth, clean sound to Bruce’s distorted, mid-range rumble—were created by McCracken’s production work. Basic tracks were cut with Berlin on keyboards and bass and Bruce Guttridge on drums, then sent off to the guest artists for their parts.
The album kicks off with “Creamed,” a tour-de-force mash-up of Bruce’s music in Cream. It starts with Berlin playing the melody from “I Feel Free”—the first song on the band’s first album, Fresh Cream—and moves on to creatively combine the words and music or both from “Politician,” “White Room,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Sleepy Time Time,” and “SWLABR,” as well as riffs from “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Spoonful.” Ron Hemby and John Cowan handle the vocals, and Rush’s Alex Lifeson plays an intense guitar solo in the middle that leads back to “I Feel Free.”
“I wanted to get every single Jack composition from the Cream period into the song, but eventually it just wasn’t going to make musical sense,” says Berlin. “But the thing that even interests me when I hear it is that the core of it is that Cream was a blues band. So I thought, Why not use the melody from one blues tune coupled with the bass line from another blues tune? And it worked out perfectly.”
Berlin emphasizes that he didn’t want to do an album of cover tunes, and the four tracks that are essentially based on a single Bruce song bear him out, as their arrangements all include sections that go beyond what Bruce had originally done. This is immediately obvious on the second track, a fresh interpretation of “Theme from an Imaginary Western” from Bruce’s first solo album, Songs for a Tailor. “I wanted it to be dramatic. I wanted it to be an anthem,” says Berlin. “And I wrote some different middle sections, with key changes, because I wanted to sort of modernize the song.” The centerpiece of the arrangement is a solo section, with back-to-back outings by guitarist Eric Johnson and Berlin. “On this song, Eric played what I think is one of the greatest rock anthems ever recorded,” says Berlin. “It’s a stunning interpretation on guitar. And in the bass solo that I played, I also wanted to go for anthem rock. It was not going to be any bebop from me.”
Up next is the off-the-wall classic “A Letter of Thanks” from Harmony Row, Bruce’s second solo album, in which Pete Brown’s lyrics offer a crazy commentary on difficult relationships over a demented blues tune. “It’s one of my favorite Jack tunes,” says Berlin with a chuckle. “The song sort of sounds like it was written while Jack had his finger stuck in a wall socket. It’s jittery and it hops and it bangs. What I wanted to do was to do it even more so. And it also has one lyric that makes me laugh to this day: ‘I trace your name in spinach.’” For the vocal, Berlin brought in another brilliant Scottish singer, Alex Ligertwood, who delivers the words with panache, including that line about spinach.
The album’s next creative mash-up occurs on the fourth tune, “L’Angelo Misterioso.” The title is taken from the pseudonym first used by George Harrison on “Badge” from Cream’s Goodbyealbum. He used it again when he played on “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune” from Songs for a Tailor, which is one of the two songs that Berlin combined to create this track. He begins with “NSU,” from Fresh Cream, and then we hear the horns from “Never Tell Your Mother”—and the parts fit together hand-in-glove. Sammy Hagar is on hand for some over-the-top vocals, and then the song moves into what’s called the “Cream Jam,” with Scott Henderson on guitar and Gary Husband, who worked extensively with Jack Bruce, on drums. It’s spectacular, and Berlin’s bass playing eerily echoes Bruce’s tone, note choices, and phrasing. If you’ve listened to a lot of live Cream (and I have), this could give you chills.
But Berlin isn’t done—as the jam ends, the arrangement moves into the piano intro from “Tickets to Waterfalls” from Songs for a Tailor. “I played that, to make it interesting, to lead people on a musical journey that is not confined to predictable harmony or resolution,” says Berlin. “I wanted to do something that might be exciting to the ear but different.” After that, the two primary song sources return, with a gritty Hagar vocal that ends with a laugh, as if to say “How about that?”
And then it’s on to outer space, literally, with “Rope Ladder to the Moon,” another gem from Songs for a Tailor, with Ligertwood again handling the vocal. Bruce’s original version featured his cello playing, and Berlin brought in Tracy Silverman to evoke that sound on his six-string electric violin, which has low F and C strings. There’s another surprise guest on hand for the guitar solo: Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, probably best known for his stint in Guns N’ Roses. “We connected at NAMM,” explains Berlin. “I bumped into Ron and we said a mutual hello. Then we sat down to play. He had an acoustic guitar and we jammed; we played the second side from Abbey Road. That was my first inkling that there’s this brilliant musician that I’ve known of for so long, but I have to listen to more closely. What he did on ‘Rope’ was astonishing.”
That “astonishing” solo reflects the instructions that Berlin gave to Thal and all his other guest artists: “I basically said, ‘Do your own thing. Here is the form. Here’s what I’m looking for. Go,’ “ he recalls. “That approach was perfect, because everybody on the record sounds like themselves but they did so within the songs. Everybody has their moment in the song, and therefore it resonates within each song’s form.”
For his next mash-up, Berlin brought together “One” from Out of the Storm and “Without a Word,” from How’s Tricks, Bruce’s fourth and fifth solo albums. Ron Hemby and John Cowan are back on vocals, and Bill Frisell plays some beautifully understated, atmospheric guitar. “‘One’ is not a song that most people, except die-hard Jack fans, would know,” says Berlin. “And ‘Without a Word’ was shown to me by Jack’s son Malcolm.” Once again, it’s the ingenuity of the arrangement that makes these two lesser-known songs meld into a cohesive unit that’s greater than the sum of the parts. “The success of each song, I think, is that I looked for ways for each section to resolve into the next seamlessly,” says Berlin. “That’s what I looked to do on each one, and that’s why I feel proud about how they came out.”
The next track, “Smiles Story and Morning Grins,” is the album’s show-stopper, featuring eight guest bassists in a stunning central section that Berlin dubbed the “Bass Relay.” The music combines the songs “Smiles and Grins” and “Morning Story,” both from Harmony Row. After vocals by Ron Hemby and Michael Dearing, the relay kicks off with Tony Levin on Chapman Stick, first playing four bars on the insistent blues riff from “Smiles and Grins” and then four bars of soloing. That pattern continues with Billy Sheehan, blasting into the riff with his unmistakable chain-saw-through-chocolate-pudding tone. Then it’s Michael League, with a clean, fluid interpretation, followed by Mark King and his signature slap-and-pop sound. After that, the baton is passed to Ron Carter, who doesn’t play the “Smiles and Grins” riff but offers a kind of bridge section in his big, warm tone. “I had to have an upright bassist to do that particular thing that was not necessarily of Jack’s song but another flavor of bass,” says Berlin. “What can I say? He walked it, and it was pure Ron Carter.”
To conclude the relay, it’s back to the riff-followed-by-solo pattern, first by Marcus Miller and then Nathan East, capped off by an energetic blast from Geddy Lee, another life-long Jack Bruce fan. “I arranged it so that there would be a slightly different comp under each guy,” says Berlin. “I managed to work it out that I would have key changes, trying to have evolution in the harmony so that if it was done in D, then it would be done in E, then it would be done in G, and so on. That’s what allowed me to come back to the song again, the resolution that I wrote into it.”
In a fine example of the kind of pacing that great albums have, Berlin follows that display of low-end virtuosity with “Folk Song,” one of Bruce’s most quietly beautiful compositions. It first appeared on Harmony Row and Jack revisited it on Monkjack, his piano-and-voice album from 1995. Once again, Ligertwood handles the vocals deftly and there’s a fine piano solo by Mariano Agustoni—but the highlight of the arrangement is a flowing, melodic bass solo. Where a young Jeff Berlin might have used this spot to display his end-to-end mastery of the bass, this is a beautifully controlled example of thoughtful note choices and phrasing. “I’ll never be able to have that young, ferocious, virtuosic approach anymore,” says Berlin, “and everybody these days plays faster and more technically able than I do, so I’ve become sort of an outside-looking-in kind of guy. What other people do, I prefer not to do. I go another way.”
The album closes with two Berlin originals. The first is “Traintime Time,” which evokes Bruce’s harmonica-and-drums live feature “Traintime” from Wheels of Fire. (And the title, of course, reminds us of “Sleepy Time Time.”) It kicks off with a driving bass-and-drums rhythm that’s like a train coming down the track before heading into a rapid-fire fusion-like theme. That was inspired, Berlin says, by “the adventurousness of Jack. You know what was in my head for that? [The live version of] ‘I’m So Glad’ on Goodbye. Because there, Jack was up, down, left, right, in, out. He was unfettered in his approach, and in that mindset I wrote a song that is a bit fusion-y, I would say, but it still had some rocking elements.” The tune has percussion and an improvised vocal line from Gumbi Ortiz and a potent harmonica solo by Pat Bergeson, whom Berlin lauds as “one of the greatest virtuosos on that instrument,” as well as a kicking guitar solo by Johnny Hiland.
The closer is “Fuimus (We Have Been),” with lyrics by Pete Brown written especially for the album. “Fuimus” is the Latin motto of the Bruce Clan in Scotland and appears on the clan’s crest. It translates to “we have been,” as in “we have been kings,” a reference to the Scottish kings from the clan. It also suggests “we have been partners” or “we have been friends,” a reference to Brown’s long and sometimes tumultuous working relationship with Bruce. Berlin sings the touching lyrics in a strong, straightforward manner. “I’m not a trained singer,” he says, “but I know how to sing a melody. Melody singing is not done much these days. As I said, what people tend to do, I tend to avoid and do something else, so I decided to do this without a single melisma or a single ‘woo woo.’ And I did that on purpose. I wanted to sing a melody.” Berlin plays another concise bass solo, suggesting the sound of a fretless without being played on one. It’s pure Jeff Berlin but you can feel the spirit of Jack Bruce coming through—as you can throughout the album.
Having completed Jack Songs, Berlin is gratified that he has made the tribute to Jack Bruce that had long been a personal goal. He hopes the album will enhance appreciation of Bruce’s music and bring new listeners to that music. He also feels a certain sense of self-validation. “My educational acumen sometimes upset people to where some felt that I was all talk, because they hadn’t heard my old records,” he says. “And I thought to myself, They have a very good point. If some of my views about choosing how to learn better, if these points have offended people and they feel that maybe I’m just talk and don’t have the music to back it up, I honestly had these guys in mind when I was recording over the months, thinking that if the younger guys would hear this music and possibly be inspired by what they heard, that the sources of this music came from my training and my background in music, maybe this would help people to understand where I was coming from in the first place.” –BM
Another View of Jack Songs
By Tom Mulhern
Full disclosure here: I’ve known Jeff Berlin for about 40 years. And for as long as we’ve been acquainted, we’ve often expressed our mutual love and admiration for the unequalled musical brilliance and bass prowess of Jack Bruce, who the world lost in 2014. Jeff had the opportunity to work with Jack when they recorded Allan Holdsworth’s Road Games, a 6-track EP released in 1983. Around that time, I recall him saying that he would never give up his bass spot onstage or in the studio to anyone…except Jack. High praise indeed, and it showed the depth of his respect for one of his greatest heroes. So here we are today, and Jeff’s love of Jack Bruce and his music haven’t diminished a bit. In fact, Jack Songs shows that Berlin’s deeper diving has brought some impressive pearls to the surface, and he polished them to perfection. To say that Jeff Berlin was the ideal person to tackle such an ambitious project as this one is miles past a mere understatement.
A word or two about Jack Bruce is in order here, too. Jack is widely considered one of the most influential electric bassists of all time, pioneering at a time when the newly plugged-in instrument was still in its early, developmental years. As talented as he was at his most famous skills, Jack Bruce wasn’t simply a bassist/singer, just as Paul McCartney isn’t. Jack played a scad of instruments, starting on cello, advancing to upright bass, and then to electric bass, including a Fender Bass VI (6-string bass) and a 4-string Danelectro in the early days of Cream, followed by his signature growly Gibson EB-3/Marshall stack setup that produced the sonic fingerprint that so many bassists coveted and emulated. Over the years, however, Jack went through a few short-term relationships with a handful of bass manufacturers that finally led to a long, fruitful connection to Warwick. The Scotsman also played guitar, experimenting with different tunings (some inspired by singer/guitarist Richie Havens, others more common but still ripe for his picking), and he was an interesting, engaging pianist and organist. He also dabbled in synthesizer and played harmonica, calliope, harmonium, recorder, and more, all far beyond mere dabbling. Steeped in jazz, classical, Caribbean, and many other styles, Jack played in R&B, blues, rock, jazz, experimental, and Latin settings, and could synthesize his many influences into songs that often featured chords, melodies, and (of course) bass lines that would draw you in and stick to you like Super Glue.
While trying to determine which of Jack’s songs to interpret on his album (note that I don’t say “cover”), Jeff had an awful lot of homework to do. He knew and was influenced by the bounty of Jack’s work, and indeed it was quite a stack to winnow, spanning over 50 years. Jack had always been an intentional moving target, an experimenter and explorer who never sat comfortably for long in one style. In addition, he was never content to settle into any one band for long, and didn’t like to typecast himself in one role. Whittling down the material was just the start for Berlin. Then came the writing and arranging, a task that one can only describe as magical. It’s one thing to learn Jack’s bass parts, but another to create music that neither mimics nor duplicates the originals, nor subjects it to any kind of injustice. When you’re interpreting monumental music by a monumental musician, it’s easy to feel like you have the eyes of that great musician staring over your shoulder and a keen ear on the prowl for your missteps.
So, how did Jeff Berlin do? Without reservation, I’d have to say that he scored A’s on all levels. His arrangements are no mere shuffling of parts, pedestrian re-instrumentations, or changes of tempo represented as “something new” (the curse of so many MTV Unplugged shows two decades ago). They’re fresh. They’re solid. They’re imaginative. And they capture the important facets of the Jack spirit: Inventiveness. Playfulness. Captivating harmonies. Twists and turns, some wrapped around dissonances that resolve (or don’t), all to squeeze out the best each song could be. And despite being one of the world’s premier bassists, Jeff didn’t showcase bass to the extreme and use Bruce’s music just as a convenient bed over which he could solo, solo, solo. Instead, guided by Jack’s beacon, he appropriately placed the instrument where it needed to be placed, and paying great attention to how it should be placed.
A good example is the first number, “Creamed,” which is a mélange of songs by Cream seamlessly interwoven and led by a number of Jack’s signature bass parts that defined songs such as “Politician,” “Sunshine Of Your Love,” and “White Room,” as well as clearly identifiable parts from “Sleepy Time Time” and “I Feel Free.” An unexpected and complex number, “Creamed” stands out because it isn’t your ordinary medley, by any stretch of the imagination. Medleys can be a predictable gimme (best bits from a very popular Broadway show, for instance) or a collection of the best bits from a band’s long and storied career. But typically, medleys are laid out end to end, with a section of Song A followed a by slices taken from Song B, Song C, etc., usually tied into a rousing finale. The classic can’t-miss crowd pleaser, a free shot in most cases. Cream fans will recognize the bits that make up this fascinating mosaic, but a pencil and paper will help if you want to roadmap it.
Berlin’s tone is as beefy and solid as his timing and technique as he provides the propulsion throughout “Creamed,” soloing with a chorus-enhanced texture that sings impressively before yielding to Rush alum Alex Lifeson’s high-gain soloing that ratchets up the intensity.
Next up is “Theme From An Imaginary Western,” where Berlin pays great homage to Jack’s lamenting piano-centered piece from his first solo album, Songs For A Tailor. Pete Brown’s metaphorical lyrics that are meant to convey the sometimes fun, often lonely life of the musician on the road—cast in a framework of thoughts evocative of the Old West. I’ve heard quite a few versions of this song since it debuted—many by Jack with a variety of bands. The versions probably best known to many were done by Leslie West and his band Mountain, with Cream producer/bassist/singer Felix Pappalardi in the spotlight. Eric Johnson’s guitar solo on the Jack Songs version is a gorgeous, well-polished jewel that’s followed by Berlin’s airy, ultra-melodic lead work on his bass. Here’s a good place to note Jeff’s incredibly smooth melodic style in even the most challenging fingerboard excursions. Chromatic or cross-string lines flow effortlessly, without hesitation or stutter, clearly showing his many years as a practitioner of musical precision.
“A Letter Of Thanks,” a quirky piece from Jack’s Harmony Row, was never a danceable number, and Jeff arranged it in a way that combines a main theme derived from the original’s closing motif and applies it formidably. It’s the launching pad for the main theme, but neither the band nor the momentum wear out their welcome in any one place, instead heading into a swinging groove midway through the tune, with Pat Bergeson’s wailin’ harmonica followed by Michael Whittaker’s perfectly soulful Hammond B-3 organ solo as Berlin walks his bass in finger-snapping-worthy style. Cool riffing by everyone and unexpected transpositions from start to finish stuff this “Letter” full of myriad wry tweaks that would undoubtedly have Jack throwing his head back in hearty laughter.
“L’Angelo Misterioso” comes next. Starting with the drums and main pulse from Cream’s “NSU,” the band delivers a strong, modern version of “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out Of Tune,” with a total renovation of the horn parts that were originally such a syncopated punctuation throughout Jack’s lead-off number in 1969. A transition to “NSU,” with horns, B-3, and Jeff’s muscular bass punch blended with “Never Tell” works better in real life than it would appear if roadmapped or sketched on the back of a napkin. Anyone familiar with Jack’s big, brash number would have been forgiven their doubts before hearing it. As a credit to Jeff’s arranging skills, every cog and gear meshes flawlessly. Longtime associate and sometimes-bandmate Scott Henderson rips the lid off with his powerful no-holds-barred solo (while Jeff and drum virtuoso Gary Husband jam Cream-style as a backing), before Jeff slows it all down to a pensive solo piano section from Songs For A Tailor’s “Tickets To Waterfalls”…before circling back with a mixture of “NSU” and “Never Tell…” Sammy Hagar’s vocals add a rocker’s cred and bits of mischief—a nice touch.
About the song’s cryptic title: Beatles fans are bound to recognize it on sight. Jack was recording Songs For A Tailor around the time when the Beatles breakup was about to go full “scorched earth,” and George Harrison, who Jack invited to play on the song, couldn’t have his credit appear (he didn’t need more legal difficulties). No problem: George was listed as L’Angelo Misterioso, sticking with the name applied a year earlier on Cream’s “Badge,” the timeless Harrison-Eric Clapton collaboration on Goodbye. Hence, Jeff’s title choice.
If any tune on this collection captures the uniqueness of Jack’s multi-faceted musical personality, it’s “Rope Ladder To The Moon.” On his version, Jack contributed acoustic guitar in open tuning, as well as cellos, with his burpy, distorted EB-3 laying out a distinctive bass part. Longtime collaborator and friend John Hiseman played drums on the original version of the tune; he took it back to his band, Colosseum, who did a rockin’ full-band arrangement that included vibraphone. Berlin’s arrangement echoes some of that, as well as the dark minor-key feel that characterized the original. Jeff’s bass parts are wonderful distillations of Jack’s lines that do far more than merely tip the hat in homage, and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal steps in to slip and slide his way through an incredibly tasty solo that dances gracefully over the bass/keys/drums backbone.
“One Without A Word” starts with the ballady “One” from Jack’s Out Of The Storm, with Bill Frisell providing stunningly beautiful guitar that punctuates with harmonics, perfect melodic movement, and sweet chords. As captivating as “One” is, it transitions into the main theme from “Without A Word,” a little-known but beautifully heart-wrenching song from the Jack Bruce Band’s 1977 album How’s Tricks? Once again, Jeff Berlin shows that he not only knows how to get inside Jack Bruce’s musical head but also how to knit two songs separated by time and space (and band) into one fluid, uniform piece.
“Smiles Story And Morning Grins” is yet another tour de force of bringing disparate songs into the same universe. If you know Harmony Row’s “Smiles And Grins” and “Morning Story” they’re the fifth and seventh tracks, and don’t seem to point to each other or have any relationship to each other that you’d recognize. And yet…and yet. Like a brilliant cryptographer, Berlin heard a connection and by taking the lovely solo piano part from the descending arpeggiated end of “Morning Story,” he then laid down an almost cinematic lead-in to “Smiles And Grins,” where he drops in the chorus from “Morning Story” to return to the “S&G” main theme. This is repeated, and if Jeff comes close to delivering note-on Jack bass parts, it’s during this first part of the song that then morphs into a showcase for several Mount Olympus-level bassists who take brief turns in the driver’s seat. The list, in order (described as a bass relay): Tony Levin, Billy Sheehan, Michael League, Mark King, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, Nathan East, and Geddy Lee. After that journey through the lower realms by the upper crust, Jeff shows off some nice piano chops during the return to the “Morning Story” ending before fading out.
“Folk Song” is probably one of the most beautiful songs Jack Bruce ever wrote and performed. Like most of his songs since he was in Cream, he collaborated with poet/lyricist Pete Brown, who constructed a set of such deeply evocative words that it would be difficult for anyone familiar with it to envision the song as a voiceless instrumental. Besides the exquisite piano courtesy Mariano Agustoni, it’s the lyrical bass soloing of Berlin and singer Alex Ligertwood’s vocals that just glue it all together in a memorable, hard-to-get-out-of-your-head track that’s best listened to with your eyes closed, your body relaxed, and your mind open.
“Traintime Time” is probably the most Jeff Berlin-ish tune of the album, with him chugging along in a way that any of his fans would recognize as his approach to moving a groove forward through sheer force of will. And riveted to that groove is a fast-tempo number that pulls from Jack’s later work with Cuicoland Express and others who wove Latin movements. As such, it evokes Jack’s relentless harmonica and Ginger Baker’s snare drum work on Cream’s “Traintime.” Jeff plays some wicked piano on the piece, and like Bruce he doesn’t paint himself into a corner and stay there. His bass work, however, behind Pat Bergeson’s harmonica and Johnny Hiland’s high-octane guitar work is enough to make you sweat as you take it all in, and just before the final fade-out, Jeff pours in some licks reminiscent of Frank Gambale-style sweep picking and will keep bassists busy for a long time trying to dissect and absorb.
Capping the album is a slow, heartfelt appreciation of Jack Bruce called “Fuimus (We Have Been),” where Mariano provides piano and Jeff the main vocals. And throughout, he makes his bass sing, really sing, especially in the beautiful, plaintive solo over spare piano chords that capture the essence of his hero’s chromaticism, wistfulness, and unexpected dissonances and resolutions that were all such vital elements in Jack’s compositions.
With as much care paid to the songs and not just to his brilliant bass playing, Jeff Berlin succeeded in creating a very Jack Bruce type of album, one where it’s not necessary for the main character to keep yelling “Look at me! Look at me!” via their instrument, and instead letting everything speak for itself. And when you come up with masterful interpretations and assemble a roster of stratospheric-level musicians, as Jeff did, to contribute to such a lofty project, everyone knows it’s all about the music. Jeff’s longtime hero would be honored. –BM
Transcription: Jack Tracks
By Chris Jisi
“Rather than make a record that featured my bass playing, I wanted to find a great setting for my bass,” says Jeff Berlin. And that he did in the music of his idol, bassist/vocalist/composer Jack Bruce, who drew from jazz, rock, blues, classical, celtic folk, Afro-Cuban, and more to create a highly original voice that blew down stylistic boundaries at every turn. Throughout Jack Songs, Jeff’s bass is an amiable host and guide, providing pliant, pulsating, melodic grooves; conversational support behind soloists; tonal shadings that allude to all eras Bruce; and soaring solos that savor the songs—not to mention serious fretboard fireworks at the end of “Traintime Time.”
Ex. 1 contains the first eight bars of Berlin’s solo on “Theme from an Imaginary Western,” at 3:35. Explains Jeff, “I was going for a stadium rock guitar solo approach, with the tone of Jeff Beck or Brian May in mind. All credit to [producer/engineer] John McCracken, who created a blend of my warm sound, distorted sound, and chorus sound that enabled me to sail over the band without muddying anything up.” Berlin starts out with a singable melody in the first two measures that he further develops in bars 3 and 4. He increases the interval range in measures 5 and 6, and the highpoint comes on the end of beat two in bar 7 (the F# to D#), where he begins an ear-grabbing descent using sixths that transition flawlessly through the harmony change from B major to D major (on the first two beats of the last measure). “A tenet of the great soloists who influenced me, like Sonny Stitt and Keith Jarrett, is to resolve your lines.” Jeff, who requested no tablature be used in these examples, adds, “I would recommend learning the solo by ear before reading the transcription. If you can combine learning music traditionally and being self-taught through emulating the players you love by ear, then you’ve covered everything.”
Ex. 2 shows Berlin’s 16th-note boogie on “Rope Ladder to the Moon,” at the start of Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal’s guitar solo (1:54). “I wanted to play a vamp behind the solo that had rhythmic motion and was harmonically interesting.” Ghost-notes are a key here, and dig Jeff’s use of an F# in measure 4, even though the harmony is D minor (something Bruce used to do, as well). Measure 8 is a climb up to the coming IV chord. Feel-wise Jeff allows, “I tried to sit in the dead center of Bruce Guttridge’s drumming and then lean slightly to the right, so to speak.”
Examples 3a and 3b are from “Smiles Story and Morning Grins.” 3a is Bruce’s memorable 7/8 riff, first heard at :48. It’s also the central riff of the “bass relay” later in the track, though Berlin brilliantly changes the key center to F# minor, A minor, B minor, C minor, and D minor, depending on the guest bassist, for tonal variety. Jeff advises. “Listen to how Jack and I played it and then check out how all eight guests played it.”
Ex. 3b shows how Berlin embellishes Bruce’s verse bass part. In the top line, at :58 he plays the tricky root-fifth-octave line as Bruce originally did. Though the harmony is not clearly defined on the original, Jeff hears a II-V, Cm7–F7 motion. Later, at 6:01, as shown in the second line, he changes his notes to first outline the Cm chord with a root-fifth-tenth (C, G, Eb) arpeggio and the F chord with a root-third-fifth (F, A, C) arpeggio—all at the 8th fret. In the last line, at 6:20, he moves to root-fifth-tenth arpeggios for both chords, jumping between the 8th and 13th frets. Reveals Jeff, “I wanted to create something new; this record is an evolution of events. After playing it Jack’s way I thought, let me try something else the next time through.”
Finally, Ex. 4 has Berlin’s solo on “Folk Song” (at 2:53), a study in his gift for playing through unrelated chord changes and for floating over and stretching the time with his phrases. After starting on the #5 (D#), he begins a smooth climb through three major chords a whole-step apart by using chord tones with a melodic arc. He then begins an expressive laid-back phrase in the second half of measure 3 that culminates in touching all the lydian color tones in the Cmaj7#11(13) chord in bar 4—as usual, applying his unique legato approach through hammer-ons and pull-offs. In 5-6, which are more harmonically related, he employs some nice bebop chromaticism (at the end of 5) and a tasty string bend (at the end of 6). Then he unfurls another chord tone-rich laid back phrase in 7-8, before ending with tasty altered dominant scale tones over the E7 in bar 9. He notes, “I’ve always tried to emulate singers in my solos, especially on slower songs. Vocalists don’t sing in perfect meter, they tend to be a little ahead of the beat or a little behind before resolving rhythmically with the time. Part of that is because they have to breathe. I like bass solos that breathe. I’ve worked on phrasing in different places around the beat and as a result my playing and breathing have evolved. Jack, of course, had a unique way of phrasing, both as a bassist and vocalist.”
Summing up his feelings on Bruce’s legacy, he quotes legendary boxing coach Cus D’Amato. “Greatness is not a measure of how great you are but how great others became because of you.”