Jeff Berlin has justifiably gained acclaim as a fusion bass wizard, racking up credits with the likes of Allan Holdsworth, Bill Bruford and Kazumi Watanabe and even subbing with old-school prog rockers Yes. But given the evidence of the music he favors at his own concerts and the concepts he imparts as head of his Clearwater, Fla., music school, the celebrated four-stringer has always been a straightahead jazzer at heart.
A no-nonsense, sometimes controversial advocate of music education, Berlin demands high-level work from himself and his bandmates, and encourages the same from his students. Hence the title of his latest and maybe most accomplished album as a leader, High Standards, a set of jazz gems that has the bassist joined by his regular Florida-based trio-mates: pianist/upright bassist Richard Drexler and drummer (and Pat Metheny vet) Danny Gottlieb. The three gallop from the get-go, with a rollicking run through Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High.” That’s one of several brightly engaging uptempo tunes, along with Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell” and Miles’ “Solar,” which opens with a floaty free section. A bluesy shuffle feel provides a welcome twist on “Invitation,” injected with Berlin’s fresh chordal flourishes, and the two bassists come off as natural-born tonal partners on Miles’ “Nardis” and the closer, “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
Yes, it counts as something of a chopsfest: Berlin’s fingerboard work remains amazingly fluid and fast, his ideas ceaselessly bubbling up. But the creativity of his soloing and the undeniably grooving swing of his walking lines ought to once and for all put to rest any lingering biases about the viability of the electric bass as a lead instrument in straightahead jazz. Right?