by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2002 Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
To say bassist and educator Jeff Berlin is a provocative presence is an understatement. In an era of air-brushed media discourse, the virtuoso musician is unafraid to pointedly tell it like it is: from a commercial perspective, the music industry and music education are in dire straits.
The evidence is plentiful: the vapid reportage and techniques offered by the majority of music publications; the dropping of most sub-200,000-unit selling artists by major labels in recent times; and the ever-shrinking musical choices available to consumers via top-tier retail outlets and mainstream broadcasters.
To combat the decaying integrity, artists such as Berlin are choosing to record, manufacture and market their music on a completely independent basis. His latest CD, In Harmony's Way, was released on M.A.J. Records, a new Internet-based label the 48-year-old runs himself in Clearwater, Florida. The city is also home to The Players School of Music, an educational institute Berlin founded to focus on fundamentals, new teaching concepts and old-fashioned hard work.
Berlin's background and credentials make him a particularly convincing commentator and instructor. During the past 25 years, he's recorded and/or performed with Bill Evans, John McLaughlin, Bill Bruford, Gil Evans, Celiz Cruz, Trilok Gurtu, Kazumi Watanabe and Van Halen, just to name a few. He's also released four fusion-oriented solo albums via the Passport and Denon labels. In addition, he attended Boston's renowned Berklee College of Music—an institution lauded for positioning core educational concepts within a real-world, gig-oriented framework.
The seeds of Berlin's love of music were planted while growing up in Queens, New York. His father was an opera singer and his mother a pianist. Genetics and chutzpah contributed to Berlin taking up the violin at age five. Acknowledged as a child prodigy, he often performed as a soloist for local orchestras during those formative years. Inspired by Jack Bruce, the legendary Cream bassist, Berlin gave up violin after a decade and pursued electric bass exclusively.
The sum of Berlin's vast experiences and philosophies are represented in the focus and uncompromising approach of his new CD. Featuring all-star sidemen including Gary Burton, Danny Gottlieb, David Liebman and Mike Stern, it's a largely straightahead jazz-oriented release with few traces of his former fusion leanings.
In Harmony's Way is available exclusively from Berlin's website. All proceeds from the disc go toward covering his son's cancer treatment costs.
You've said the new album is your best ever. Why do you feel that way?
It's because all the music came out in a flow with little effort from the writing down of the notes to the practicing of the bass to rehearsing and learning the music for the recording session. It was the easiest recording date I've ever done. It happened with no coaxing whatsoever. I enjoyed that and chalk it up as a result of going to therapy for some years. I gained a lot of inner peace and understanding. I've been working on issues in myself and the music began to benefit from it. While making this CD, I had the least cluttered psyche I've had. I'm also thrilled with the quality of bass playing on it and the contributions of the other musicians are great. I have little to complain about in any regard. I'm very pleased.
What did you address during your therapy?
I grew up a little rough. My father is a holocaust survivor and my mother was an abused woman. I was born in the '50s when child protection issues and psychological understanding of how to raise children wasn't discussed or known. So I grew up as an adult with a lot of problems that had to get resolved. I took care of most of them and now I can feel good about what's going on. Therapy has been a blessing to me. I bit the bullet. Therapy can be the hardest thing you can do. You really have to face who you are and no-one likes the idea of finding out that they're flawed and have unhealthy belief systems. It was a boon. Once I got through the pain of discovery and throwing away my old beliefs and replacing them with healthy new ones, the sun started shining and it was a great day. And it happens every day now. I'm very lucky.
Many renowned musicians have been under the influence of an unbalanced mindset. Does it go hand-in-hand with the creative impulse?
I've come to believe the greater the musician, the quirkier the person. If you look at the great players and composers, pretty much each of them could get their own CBS movie-of-the-week made about their lives. [laughs] They really are a strange bunch. I believe art can't be turned off. You can stop working on your music, but you can't shut off the odd creative bug that's going on within you. We're oddballs. Part of the therapy was to accept my oddball-edness.
The new album is a far cry from the fusion sound of your previous solo albums.
I'm dismissing fusion out of my life right now. I don't hear it as a meaningful music for me. I'd rather play rock or jazz. I think both idioms are more meaningful on their own. As a leader, I decided to pursue jazz because to me it is the style in which creativity is paramount. You can play the same song over and over and never play it the same way twice. I really believe jazz has helped to heal me in a large way too because of that creative element. Just like you have to find new things in therapy, you have to find new things in music. Jazz is a great outlet.
Describe your approach as a leader when working with the disc's all-star sidemen.
I wanted to make sure the players on this disc had free reign to do what they do best. Fortunately, some of my good buddies are coincidentally the greatest musicians in the world. There's Richard Drexler on piano from Clearwater [Florida] who is one of the top jazz players I've worked with; David Liebman on saxophone, who is a legend among sax players and one of the most unique voices on his instrument; and Mike Stern on guitar. Between Mike and David, I had two guys who were part of Miles Davis' bands. I was happy to draw out that element of their music to put something special into mine. I also have Gary Burton, who is a hero for me because of his ability to create on the spot. Danny Gottlieb is the drummer. Without exaggeration, he is maybe the most musical drummer I've ever played with. His musicality comes from supporting the song. His ethic is to make the song sound good. His time is so beyond reproach, it's not even fair—it's organically stellar.
With these guys, I have to perform to the top of my ability. That's why I loved playing with all of them so much. These are Grammy-award winning, legendary, world famous, trend-setting, style-creating musicians. I had to be the leader who told them what to do in certain parts. Frankly, I was shy enough where I made my little suggestion, shut-up and what you hear is the wonderful results of their creativity.
As a bass player, I've tried to emulate all these guys. I wanted to be a free player on my instrument because bass players are pretty much locked up on the instrument in that they cannot really be melodically and rhythmically free. I believe this very strongly. If you listen to most bass solos, they're fairly predictable, non-tonally adventurous and mostly unspecial tone-wise. Bass players don't play melodically or rhythmically the way that sax players, guitarists, piano players or trumpet players do. That's why I always have. On the new record, I wanted to make my flat-out best attempt to join the Liebman-Burton-Drexler-Stern club so I could in some regard represent music like they do, only on the bass guitar.
How does your approach to playing bass on the new disc differ from your previous releases?
My assessment as a 48 year-old, middle-aged man is that I'm creating a new language for my instrument. I'm in the middle of developing it. Some people are blessed with having a vision early on. Jaco Pastorius did. Gary Burton did too. I never had a vision until maybe recently. Now, I can say "I have a vision and my playing is changing as a result of it." I think the most important element is having a vision. It supercedes technique or anything that may be physically challenging. A vision creates an environment in the most pristine, impeccably, carefully-prepared way. That's why I think my best playing is on this record. It represents me beautifully. I'm really happy. This is not something I used to say. I was never happy with my albums. When listening to some old stuff, I wince, especially when I realize who I used to be when playing that stuff.
I'm very unhappy with the old fusion stuff. I like the Bruford stuff because it was meaningful for the era. I was a young, hyper, raucous 1,000-note bass player. There was nobody in that field except for Stanley Clarke and Jaco. I was arguably the least known, but I wasn't that obscure. I had a strong following worldwide for my particular brand of so-called virtuosity. It was still new enough that it was refreshing for people to see an athlete holding a bass guitar. It was the athleticism of the playing that made them listen and that's why I can't listen to it. My focus was being an athlete. I don't want to be an athlete on the bass anymore. I want to be Liebman, Burton or Wayne Shorter on the bass in the worst way. I want to be pure and sure. I want to play with a screaming amount of passion. I feel the new album represents that.
Elaborate on the new language you're creating for the bass.
On every record, I seem to come up with something on the bass that's never been done before. On this record it's on "Runaway Train." It has a particular type of ostinato left-hand/right-hand type of rhythmic pattern. I haven't heard it done by other bass players. It's my answer to the thumb slap. I have always wished to not sound like other bass players. My wish is to create something different. If you have a wish and you're on a journey, something is bound to come out of it. I didn't wish to play using my thumb. I decided to look at the instrument and find something that was still rhythmically impactful and that was the bassline I came up with. It's a new concept for me and I think it's different.
I understand the new album's proceeds are going toward the medical bills for your son's cancer treatment.
Yeah, my son had Lymphoma when he was four years old. The brave little kid endured more than a year of treatments. He came out of it seemingly whole, cancer-free and unscathed. Perhaps he's a little psychologically weary. We nurtured him back to health. We were grateful that the medical system in this country saved his life. I'm eternally grateful for the results. But we have bills to pay. That's why I put my CD out only on jeffberlinmusic.com—to make sure I'm earning money.
You were initially negotiating with Blue Note to put this record out, but ended up releasing it on M.A.J.—your own label. What made you go that route?
M.A.J. stands for Middle-Age Jazz. [laughs] I did it this way because I have had the experience with record companies in the past where I've been signed, recorded, released and then completely non-promoted. It was always a puzzle as to why a record label would invest in an artist and not promote the record in order to sell the product. So, I decided to release it on the website because I felt it gave me more control than I'd have with a record company. With Taking Notes, my last CD, I barely did any interviews. People constantly asked why they couldn't find the disc. Will Lee called me saying "Where's your CD? I'm at Tower Records in New York City and it's not here." It's a result of a record company not supporting the artist they signed. I decided I wouldn't work with a record company again unless I'm sure they'll support it. If someone wants to buy the CD, they can go to the website and have it in a week. It shouldn't be an infringement or difficulty. It's the Internet era and I'm learning all the time how widespread this way of working is.
You’ve said that at its best "music is a selfish art form." Given that, why were you so dejected a few years ago when you told Bass Player Magazine "I decided the writing was on the wall—that people apparently didn't want what I had to offer as a contemporary bassist and musician. Artists come and go in this business every day, so I'd pretty much come to terms with it."
I was wrong. People were into what I was doing. People were asking me for years "Where's your product?" It's not the people who aren't interested, it's the record industry. They're the ones who've let me down. Fans were waiting for me to put out something representing what I was doing. My misunderstanding was in the fact that record companies only wish to sign artists to make money. I don't blame them for this. They felt I wasn't going to make them any money, so I was ignored by the record industry. I've had some offers from small labels, but when I spoke to them, I found the budgets were negligible and promotion non-existent.
With my status in the bass world and contributions to music and music education, I thought that I might deserve to be subsidized in some way by some of the top rock bands these companies have signed, who have sold untold millions of records. Why wouldn't they be willing to sign a rinky dink bass player who maybe sells 30,000 CDs and find it a worthwhile investment, simply because of my reputation on the instrument? This is where I screwed up. They don't think that way. It's why I had to do my own thing. I'm doing better than I ever did with a record company. The industry hasn't done me a good turn, so I've done it for myself.
What motivated you to found The Players School of Music?
When my son Jason was diagnosed with Lymphoma around 1996, I couldn't tour because we had to take care of him. So, I decided to stay at home and put all my focus into The Players School. That became our bread and butter. It's a natural evolution for me. I had a column in Bass Player and it talked a lot about music education. I thought "Maybe I can put my money where my mouth is and create a small institution that teaches real music learning, development and ideas—not things to fool the students or b.s. them in any way whatsoever. Rather, let them know what it really means and takes to be a player. So, we deal with real music. No tablature. No tuners. No slap. This includes reading exercises. They also play five days a week in ensembles.
Ear training, harmony and real musical concepts are offered at their level of understanding. You can't take a beginner who never read music and bury them in these things. You have to dose them out in small bits to their abilities. If you give a musician content-rich musical information, they're going to become content-rich individuals and play. That's why we do what we do. And it's important to note that we're not a bass school. We're a guitar, drums, keyboard and bass school. We have 20 students at a time. It's a small school, but we may have the finest musical campus in the world. We have a mini-rainforest with sculptures, columns, fountains and sculpted gardens. There's nothing else like it.
Describe the typical philosophies students initially bring to the school and those you seek to infuse them with.
What the Players School of Music does is give me a chance to see first-hand that many young musicians don't understand what I'm talking about. I'm an oddball having been a symphony violinist, rock musician and jazz musician. There's not that many people with credentials like those. The students are guys who've been influenced by MTV and VH-1; the thrill of performance because of music award shows; going to concerts; and buying CDs. They want to be part of all that—especially the guitar and keyboard players. The bassists seem to come ready to go to work—maybe because they read my columns. But the other players don't know any brand of education or philosophy. They're not necessarily in the mood to work on their instrument because the work ethic is not a happening concept in this musical era. A lot of guys won't practice for the joy of practicing. They'll practice in order to get good enough to try and get a record deal. It's a shame, because most of them will find that's not going to happen. So, I'm hard on the case of these guys. They don't have my musical experience. If they want to play, they really have to work at it.
What's your take on the myriad of learning shortcuts offered by guitar magazines, videos and tablature books?
I feel a large part of music education is a disaster today. A lot of it's coming from people who don't know how to teach. There are still some great schools and sources of learning, and those people know exactly what I'm talking about. The guitar magazines have inspired assembly-line bullshit, meaningless educational principles. I can prove these things don't work right now. Let's start with slap exercises. People buy videos and have gone to music schools to play slap. They've traveled thousands of miles to do that. Now, let's take rock. People have bought rock videos and taken rock classes. Now, make a list of all the slap bass players who have acquired some success and done so through slap schools, slap teachers and slap videos. After that, make a list of rock musicians who became successful through rock studies. I'll give you a week and you won't get 10 names on each list and there's the proof. If the educational methods had meaning, the list should go on and on. Make a list of lawyers who got their license after graduating from Harvard and you'll quickly come up with hundreds, because their method works. Make a list of pilots who came out of the Air Force and went into commercial aviation. The list will go on forever. But no-one can make any kind of significant list of people that used rock or slap education to help them become professionals—even the secondary-level players like the top guys in town.
Given that, why do you think people continue embracing these ineffective educational methods?
Because people don't know what they're doing and believe what they read. I'm not trying to be insulting, but the opinions about these methods are the same as me having an opinion about what kind of grass they should use on professional golf courses. Granted, I only putt on the weekend on a miniature golf course. But I am going to tell you my heartfelt reasons why the grass should be a certain height. So, my opinion is fluff.
Music magazines give letter space, columns and clinic tours to a whole group of people who do not understand the meaning and depth of what a really good musical education is. So, the artists invent these things with the full endorsement of the editors of the magazines who may pay well, but have no real idea having never researched the misinformation they're giving. It's bogus. And when I come along and say it's bogus, those people say "What do you know about it?" I say "What I know about it comes from the fact that I've been playing for 43 years in the three major styles of music and have been involved in music education for 20 years." No-one can touch these credentials. So, when I write or say these things stating that the modern education system is full of hot air, the people who are mad about it are the people who don't read, don't play, don't gig and don't have any idea what it is they're subscribing to.
It seems to me the ideas you deem important—cultural understanding, hard work and coming to terms with the forms and structures that inform and influence one's endeavors—are basic Western societal deficiencies these days.
Fast food. Fast check-out counter. Fast service. Fast results. Take this medicine and you'll feel better fast. Lose weight fast. Get rich fast. Become a top-notch golfer fast. Everything is fast in this society and young people are falling victim to it. When I was a kid coming up, we played and we practiced and we practiced and we played. That was our credo. I'm an old fart now, but I can't get over the fact that a lot of people don't get that credo. We don't as a society understand that if you want something, you have to put something into it. What's why I know most musicians ought not be playing.
That’s quite a controversial statement.
If they really wanted to play, they would play. They would practice and they would play and they would play and they would practice. Practicing would be as close to joy as actual gigging. There's a joy to playing guitar. Man, you're not standing outside in the sweltering summer sun unloading crates off the back of a truck for a supermarket. You're sitting in a nice air-conditioned room with a guitar in your hand and asked to practice meaningful music to get better so you can express yourself better. And most guys won't do it. That's why I know some players are not cut out to be players. It's always these guys who get the maddest about what I say. But I know somebody out there is reading what I say and thinking "Gee whiz. He's talking about me. Maybe I should look into this a bit more and practice to play a bit better." I want people to enjoy the idea of learning how to play.
I get so many emails from middle-aged guys—35-years-old and up—who say "I thought you didn't know what you were talking about, but 15 years have gone by and I'm not gigging. I can't play any better than I did when I was 20. I better rethink what you used to say." The funny thing is it was never my idea in the first place. Basic, decent music teachers understand these concepts. There's nothing here that's never been said before, except maybe don't use a metronome to learn good time because it's not going to give it to you. And don't use a hand grip because you don't need hand strength to play bass. You need dexterity and light touch. And don't practice picking exercises. They're about as meaningful as rolling the letter "r" and thinking you know how to speak Spanish. You have to have content before technique. When you have content, your technique must develop because of the need of the music to be represented. People go the other way.
I've spoken to several electronica acts and DJs who argue knowing too much about music theory can inhibit creativity. Some of them say they've purposely gone out of their way to not learn the basics. What do you make of that philosophy?
It's like saying "I purposely don't know the basics of English." I know a doctor who purposely didn't learn the basics of sewing up a wound with suture. I know a pilot who decided not to learn the basics of piloting a plane or how to gun an engine forward. That's what it sounds like. It's the exact same thing.
The acts I referred to believe all we need to do is listen to their end results. They believe they've managed to come up with interesting music without needing a formal understanding of structure and composition.
I'll agree with their results because they are not in an educational situation. If a musician has the desire to rub mayonnaise all over their guitar pick-ups and calls it their way of expressing their art, I'll support it. But the minute they make an instructional video about it, I'm going to jump up and say it's bogus. I have no problem with an individual pursuing music their particular way unless they say it is a meaningful way to do it. What is the end result? The result is they're selling records by the millions. I'll give them credit for selling records by the millions. I've never done it. But I don't give them much credit for being musicians other than guys who only function in the style of music they do. Once that style is over with, so are they. It's not a rude, cruel thing to say. Music changes hands every three or four years. Every now and then, something stays put. Rap stayed put. Certain rock bands stayed put. But generally, music is recyclable. It also changes and comes out differently. These young kids are suddenly gonna be old guys and won't be big anymore. They'll have made millions already, so they maybe won't have to care. But they're mostly only happening in this particular moment in music history. It won't last.
How important do you think it is for listeners to have a formal musical understanding?
For listeners who are not planning to play? None. Music is supposed to be entertaining and joy-giving. I don't have to know the history of art or how they made the oil in the paint to say "Gee, that painting looks really nice." If it has an emotional impact on me, job well done. I'm a boxing fan, so I know a lot of boxing statistics. I know the difference in gloves and referee styles. I can tell you why one fighter will win before they step into the ring. Usually, I'm right. But it's a cursory understanding. People take a cursory interest in music too. People talk about this guy having this guitar or the fact that it took him only two days to write the album. They're fun, little stats. So, I say enjoy the art forms that give you pleasure.
Everything I said earlier is dealing with musicians who think they know what they're talking about as opposed to people who play to entertain. So, we need to separate those. Between people who make comments about music education who don't understand what they're talking about versus a guy who happens to play and sells millions of records and sells out stadiums, I'll take the latter for the entertainment element. It's more honest for me than a guy who says "practice with a metronome because it'll help your time." It's those guys that are screwing up a whole generation of kids.
Do you feel you’ve received your due for your contributions as a musician and educator?
Everyone knows Van Gogh and Da Vinci, but there are painters who wonder "Why is it people don't know what I'm doing when I'm so special?" So, you have to educate people. A player has an uphill battle. Players are dealing with the MTV Awards, Jay Leno and David Letterman which only showcase well-known pop or rock bands. The idea of taking an unknown commodity and placing them in a national situation simply because they are a great musician does not make sense to television producers.
The change has to come from the publicity area—in particular, the broadcast area. The TV shows have to open up and allow musicians to present what they do. People believe what they read and see. Because of this, the networks have an opportunity to educate people simply by giving me a forum to do what I do. But I don't know if I'll ever get on a show like Letterman. I wanna get featured. I wanna do an interview. I have a lot to say. Jaco [Pastorius] broke a lot of moulds. He was jazz-rock's biggest star. Now, I'm trying to do that in a different way. I want to introduce this instrument to mainstream people—people who aren't musicians. I don't know if I ever will. I probably won't, but I'll go for it and do my best. Maybe someone after me will do it better.
I understand that business is business, but at the same time, art does suffer. I'm a sort of small-time guy, but I'm known on seven continents and have a bit of a widespread reputation. Also, the musicians always came out to see me. The kids loved Van Halen, but Van Halen loved me. The kids loved Rush, but Rush loved me. So, I have the support of musicians who outsold me 10 million to one.
What I need is the support of a forward-thinking producer who instead of giving eight bars to that damn guitarist or wuss-ass sax solo gives it to me. I can give that person a bass sound that sings out gloriously. Let me have eight bars. It's never been done in contemporary music. Even when I chat with well-known producers, they say "No, no. I can't do that." They're so afraid to break the mould and try something new. It's not a good industry for art. It's a great industry if you happen to follow the rules of the moment. You can hit and hit big. Music is not a word used in the music industry often. It's often an alien word.
You’ve said " Not since Jack Bruce was I starry-eyed over another bass player." What’s your take on the current crop of bass stars?
I've always been motivated by tonality—the sound of an instrument—and more importantly, the note choices made. I appreciate the talent of all the contemporary musicians. I just don't listen to a lot of the guys for listening pleasure. I don't really listen to fretless players because I feel their sound is way too Jaco Pastorius-influenced. The one fretless guy who doesn't sound like Jaco is Jack Bruce. I don't get any stimulation from guys who slap billions of notes, because there's no tonality in that area. But I recognize that if some of these guys took the bull by the horns, they might come up with something absolutely glorious on the bass.
What did you make of the Ken Burns’ Jazz television series?
I enjoyed it. Some people had problems with some elements of it. There was nothing to precede the series in regards to jazz history. He covered a great portion of it and the heavy emphasis was on Louis Armstrong. I have to say it was a job well done by a man who clearly loved his work. I appreciated the old photos and sound clips. Jazz represents a long time in American history and you can't cover it all in 10 days. You need 30-40 days to give it decent coverage. But I thought it was entertaining and fun. I appreciate the effort went into it.
I know the jazz players have a bone to pick, but remember, it was Ken Burns' documentary. It was his vision, his money, his project, his baby. Because it was his project, I have to give him credit as a non-musician for having the strength of character to develop this series in the best way he could. I can understand why jazz musicians were upset, but Burns didn't make it for jazz musicians. If he made it for them, they'd have a real point of contention. He made it for people who don't know or understand jazz—people who don’t know about the impact of Louis Armstrong. They now understand that impact. Burns brought jazz into American homes for people who otherwise would never consider jazz. In general, it's too much of an upstream battle against pop music, but he did every jazz musician one of the greatest services by making jazz mainstream for 10 days. For that, I'm very grateful.
You were the original bassist in the John McLaughlin trio. How did that opportunity come about?
Back in 1977, I was hired to be the house bassist for Atlantic Records at the Montreux Jazz Festival by Herbie Mann. There were a lot of musicians coming and going. We'd play all night 'til four in the morning. What a great time for music the '70s and early '80s were. People were playing for the joy of playing during the middle of the fusion era. One evening, I'm walking down a hallway and I hear my bass sound—someone was playing my bass. So, I walk in the room and it's John McLaughlin. [laughs] Ten years later, he called me. He said he never forgot what I did as a bass player at the festival in 1977.
Musically, it was an astonishing experience. John is one of the greatest guitarists in the world. I learned a lot. Trilok [Gurtu] is brilliant too. I became a better musician. I hope I contributed a lot to it too. We'd rehearse eight hours a day at his girlfriend's chateau. I had never been in a chateau. There were acres of vineyards and it was fantastic. After rehearsing, we'd just play jazz tunes for our own entertainment.
That trio had more of a world music feel than the music you're typically associated with.
My skills in music aren't confined to what I do as a leader. What I pursue as a leader is important to me, but remember, I was a violinist too. Also, as a jazz bass player I've performed with Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans. I was going to be Bill Evans' first recorded venture with an electric bass player before he passed away. I've also played with Van Halen, Rush and Journey. I've played salsa with Celia Cruz in Venezuela. So, my love of music extends to many things. That's why my records are a little eclectic and I've never been able to do eight songs of any one style. I bounce around the avenues in terms of musical styles. As a world bass player, I'll add something to any project that comes down the road because of my determination to make the music rise as high as it possibly can. I've got more cards up my sleeve than most people know about. [laughs]
How do you look back at your stint with Kazumi Watanabe?
He was one of the nicest, most hospitable people and one of the greatest guitarists. What an ear he has. Playing with him and Bill Bruford in a trio was very exciting. We had some moments when we were musically very hot. Also, Kazumi knew all the great sushi restaurants to go to which was great because both Bill and I are huge sushi fans. We ended up going to little places no-one knew of that were down the alley and up the stairs. We ended up participating and hanging out in the deepest core of Japanese society. We ended up in a Ryokan in the Isle of Kyushu that's purely Japanese in terms of entertaining guests. Most westerners didn't go to it or know about it. We were on a little river coming down from the mountain. It was almost magical. So, I had a lot of fun with Kazumi.
Some have criticized Watanabe for paying American musicians to perform with him in Japan because they see it more as a business move than a musical one.
What's wrong with using a musician to help boost your career? If I can play with a piano player nobody knows or have Herbie Hancock on my record, who will I go for? I don't see anything wrong with using reputable people to help spread the word about your own particular brand of musicianship. It's not an unreasonable thing to do. Herbie Hancock would be there because of his brilliant musicianship, but you're also going to get name value. You can be intelligent from a business perspective, utilize the idea of promotion and stay true to your art. It's completely legitimate and logical.
Kazumi is a man of integrity who respects his sidemen. He's someone with a brilliant ear. He's influenced by Western music, other guitarists and styles of music, but so what? He's a creative guy. He's a composer and bandleader. He gives work to American musicians from time-to-time. There's nothing to complain about.
A prominent musician once said Watanabe was on the verge of developing a truly unique voice, but chose to take a more populist bent instead. What's your opinion?
Most musicians have given that up. In fact, practically all bassists have. There's almost no bass player I can think of that's taken an original stance. Rather, they got their careers going with the type of bass playing they do and their so-called development is over. Some musicians bypass this. For instance, Victor Wooten developed beyond that in some regard. For most musicians, it's like running a 50-yard dash and always getting to the 49th yard and 11 inches and stopping right there before they cross over that line into the area of originality and something really different. That's because the hardest thing in music is to do something no-one else does. And if it's really difficult, why do it? They think "I'll get on the cover of a magazine, get some gigs and do some interviews. So, why do I have to pursue the hard road?"
You became a known commodity after joining the band Bruford in 1978. What impact did Bill Bruford have on your career and musical development?
I owe Bill Bruford everything. I really admire him. He's the guy that broke me into the music industry as an unknown. I played well and that seemed to be exciting for him. He's the guy that taught me to hear music unlike the way they taught me in music school. He played a chord on a piano and there was a note that clashed. The harmony book says you shouldn't play those two notes together. I mentioned that to him and he said "Well, I like the way it sounds." That little line absolutely changed my life because it made sense. It was about how I hear it versus how it ought to be. There's a necessity to learn it in music school, but then you can break the rules. Before you can build any kind of house, it has to have a firm foundation. In academic ways, music has to have a firm foundation too. It has to mean something in fact, not art. Art and academia don't relate. They're different. If you can deal with music academically, you're gonna deal in the facts of music. Then you can deal with art.
You consider Bruford one of music's truly original voices. What makes him special to you?
Bill has a vision. He is an original and utterly different. When you have a vision, you have a chance to change your horizons completely. Therefore, as a drummer, he stands out. There are drummers that can play him under the table and he knows that. But because he has a vision, he is the guy who is uniquely qualified to make a special statement in music. I have to give it to the guy with the vision over the guy who can play better. The guy with the vision is gonna set trends. The guy who plays better is gonna be on the jingle commercials and play movie dates. That's cool, because we need that too, but the original guy is gonna set things in motion.
Bill used to come to play with me and Mike Stern in North Boston. We played jazz at Michael's Pub which was a 30-seater. He used to fly over here from London to do that. He's the guy who quit Yes at the threshold of world success. Here's a guy who wants to play music and do something different in his life.
Do you foresee any further work with Bruford in the future?
Eventually. We're pals, but Bill has a need to use Tony Levin for the type of music he's hearing. I play 10,000 notes and Tony plays two. Bill needed that. It made sense to his music. Perhaps one day he'll need me or I'll need him in another capacity.
If the new album is any indication, you're not a 10,000-note player anymore.
True. These days, Tony plays two notes, whereas I play about seven. [laughs]
What accounts for that shift?
Middle age and getting older. I can tear up a fretboard in fast tempos, but I found it wasn't necessary to do so. My playing is changing and evolving. That's partly due to having a vision of my own. It only took me 40 years to get here.