Peter Bernstein: Straight, No Chorus

In devoting an entire album to Thelonious Monk’s repertoire, Peter Bernstein joins the small number of guitar players who have accepted such a challenge. Bernstein, however, hardly considers the release to be a definitive work. Achieving such a benchmark, he said, would require a lifetime of concentration on the composer’s music.

Sitting at a Starbucks blocks away from his apartment in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, Bernstein said he’s had little time to think about the release of Monk (Xanadu/The Orchard), which features a dozen well-known compositions. “I haven’t listened to [the album],” Bernstein admitted in early February, just days after returning from a month-long national tour with the Blue Note 7, an all-star band paying tribute to Blue Note Records’ 70th anniversary. The tour is scheduled through April.

Instead of focusing on the recording, his seventh as a leader, Bernstein spends the bulk of an interview discussing Monk’s compositions. “It’s very sophisticated music,” Bernstein, 41, said, “and also very rooted, and [it] has great strength in [its] simplicity, too. When I got into it, I found certain voicings did lay on the guitar because of the spacing. It’s really not the sound of a piano—it’s the sound of Monk playing the piano.”

Even so, Bernstein struggled at times to translate the music to the guitar because of the instrument’s technical limitations. “I’ve always been frustrated as a guitar player harmonically,” he said, “because you can’t play all the notes like a piano player can. The range is smaller, and it’s harder to play closer voicings on the guitar because you have to stretch between the strings.”

Greg Scholl, president and chief executive of The Orchard, chose Bernstein to record the inaugural album for the reformed Xanadu Records, a bop label that operated from 1975 to 1999. Xanadu’s catalog features roughly 130 albums, including reissues originally appearing on imprints like Signal, Manor and Sittin’ In.

Monk, released Jan. 13, features a trio that includes bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Bill Stewart, although three tracks spotlight Bernstein performing unaccompanied. Bernstein’s readings of tunes like “Brilliant Corners,” “Monk’s Mood” and “Ruby, My Dear” highlight the lyricism rather than the uneven aspects. Scholl, who produced the album, appreciated Bernstein’s approach. “I’ve heard other guitarists play Monk and really stress the oddness and the angularity,” Scholl said, “and to a degree I like what Peter did because it’s very counter to how most people would approach the [repertoire].”

Indeed, Bernstein remains unique among his peers: He plays only one guitar (and owns but two archtops); he eschews effects pedals and other sonic equipment; he aligns himself with a jazz guitar tradition rooted in the 1950s and 1960s. Bernstein looks beyond the guitar for inspiration, a penchant he attributes in part to studying with guitarist Ted Dunbar in 1985. “He was the one who told me [to] learn about harmony [by hanging out] with piano players and arrangers,” Bernstein said. “And if you want to learn about phrasing, hang out with horn players and good singers. And if you want to learn about rhythm, hang out with drummers and bass players. Don’t be a guitar player that hangs around other guitar players.”

Bernstein’s passion for jazz guitar began in 1982 when the use of effects had reached a saturation point, particularly with regard to the chorus pedal. Bernstein went in the opposite direction, pursuing a style focused entirely on producing a clean, unembellished tone. “Everybody was playing … through chorus [and creating] heavily processed sound,” Bernstein recalled. “And the guys that I loved had a touch on the instrument.

“So that was a conscious decision not to play with chorus,” he said. “I just wanted to deal with the music, and develop a relationship with the instrument that was just the instrument, that would come from my hands.

“I think that effects are great,” he added, “and if you can use them to enhance your personality, it’s a great thing. But people can also sound the same when they turn on the same pedals.”

Guitarist Jim Hall admires Bernstein’s commitment to the straight-ahead school of jazz guitar, a style less pervasive today. “It’s quite different from somebody like Bill Frisell,” said Hall, one of Bernstein’s mentors. “[Bernstein] just is really intense and white hot all the time. I love it. I’m really glad he’s there, and he’s moving ahead in his own way. With so much going on with electronics and all kinds of gadgetry, [Bernstein has] found his voice and … to me that’s what the rest of us are all trying to do.”

Originally published in April 2009

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