Talking Jazz Guitar (with Peter Bernstein and Jimmy Bruno)

For many years Les Paul (1915-2009) held a regular concert at the Iridium jazz club in Manhattan on Monday nights. After his death in 2009, others who are loosely considered to be in the same genre as Les Paul’s jazz trio have performed the traditional gig at the Iridium.

On Monday, July 8, on the eve of his day of birth, the Les Paul trio (Lou Pallo on solid-body electric guitar, Nicki Parrott on bass and John Coliani on piano) performed alongside a guitar duo of Jimmy Bruno, the 59-year-old, one-time leader of Frank Sinatra’s band and Peter Bernstein, an East Coast jazz guitar stalwart. I caught up with Peter and Jimmy at a table to the side of the bandstand at Iridium after their late show.

The club is located underground on Broadway and 51st street. An unassuming room by the standards of a legendary venue, framed musical artifacts line the walls. There is a main floor with dinner tables before the bandstand, and a low mezzanine bears additional seats. The bar is very small and wedged in the right corner of the mezzanine.

Peter Bernstein sits up and leans forward for the interview, though speaks gently into my microphone. Jimmy leans back and fidgets. Peter is wearing a coat sans a tie, Mr. Bruno, a button-down shirt, his sleeves rolled up. In the background, music is playing slightly too loudly on the house PA:

Scott Krane: Whose idea was it to collaborate? Was it Jimmy? Or was it Peter?

Jimmy Bruno: Different people put us together. I’ve been a fan of Peter before I met him; he is just so melodic and lyrical.

Scott Krane: Where did you first hear Peter, Jimmy?

Jimmy Bruno: Radio.

Scott Krane: On the radio?

Jimmy Bruno: Yeah

SK: A local New York station?

JB: WRTI in Philadelphia. I am trying to think of the first time we played together.

Peter Bernstein: At Chris’s.

JB: At Chris’s. A guy named Al McMahon who books the music there. He is a big guitar buff. And he said how would you like to play with Peter Bernstein?

Scott Krane: Chris who?

JB: The club is called Chris’s in Philly.

SK: Oh. Chris’s in Philly.

JB: And various times people put us together. This one was Ron Stern.

Peter Bernstein: Yes. He called me and asked me who else I would like, another guitar player so I mentioned you.

JB: It just kind of happens, you know?

Peter Bernstein: Jimmy’s been playing at Chris’s for how long? For 20 years? He’s a legend down there.

SK: When is the next time you are playing in Philly?

JB: July 26.

SK: What’s it like playing with Lou Pallo?

JB: He’s the real deal. He’s got that real sound the way music used to be. It is a real treat to see somebody sticking it true to the music.

SK: How so? How is he treating the music?

PB: I don’t think he knows any other way except how he does it. I mean he just does it the way he does it. He is a strong rhythm player. He represents a certain kind of guitar player that doesn’t really come up any more, like he like knows every tune all the changes, all the slick arrangements and everything.

SK: Jimmy, are you teaching still?

JB: I am teaching online. If you go to JimmyBruno.com you’ll find it.

SK: How many students?

JB: Well, it’s a subscription site, it changes all the time. It’s hard to put a number on it.

SK: But you’re having success with it?

JB: Oh yes. Really successful. Sometimes too successful. It’s hard to travel, play and still keep that up. It’s a 24/7 job.

SK: Peter, where are you teaching?

PB: At NYU and The New School.

SK: NYU AND The New School?

PB: New School is more like I’m on the faculty there, NYU is more, well it depends on how many students sign up, last semester I had like 6 students.

SK: Can each of you guys recall stories about Les Paul?

JB: Well, the first time I met him was at the old Iridium.

SK: Where was the old Iridium? Was it downtown more?

JB: I was just thinking about that myself.

PB: It was at Lincoln Center. [sic]

JB: And Tal Farlow was in town, and I took a picture with—I was standing in the middle of Tal Farlow, Les Paul and me. Somebody was taking a picture, I had just met him. And while they were taking the picture, Les Paul said to Tal, boy they’re making them shorter these days...[pause]...guitar players. [joke]

(pause)

SK: Got it.

PB: That’s rough.

SK: Who said this? Les said this to Tal?

JB: Yeah. Typical Les Paul stuff. I loved it. Very nice man. Both of them.

PB: I never met him. I saw him once at Fat Tuesday’s when he used to have a steady gig at Fat Tuesday’s. I never met him personally.

(A glass of brandy or scotch is delivered to Jimmy Bruno)

SK: He probably had a long line of guys waiting to learn with him.

PB: I think so. All the teaching he did. He was Les Paul.

SK: He stayed true to the music, right?

PB: He’s a pop star from way back. He was a star in the early ‘50s, you know?

JB: There aren’t guitar stars like that anymore. He wasn’t just a jazz guitar player. I mean, he was—he took it further; he turned it into a very commercial success.

SK: Both Peter Bernstein and Jimmy Bruno are known as jazz guitar purists.

JB: It’s hard to put a name to that. I am not really sure what that means. I think it means we know how to play standards, we know the right chords. But it doesn’t mean we don’t know other kinds of music. Peter gets to record with a lot of different styles of music. Peter can play anything.

SK: What other projects do you have going on?

PB: I do get to play with a lot of different people. Soon I am playing with this bass player, Ben Allison. That’s a stretch for me. He’s got some different kinds of stuff.

JB: He’s on the cutting edge; he can go this way that way. Anything you want, you know?

PB: [laughs] Well I try.

JB: So purists, that isn’t the right word.

PB: You try to be purists with whatever you’re doing. But with guitar, you don’t play with effects, the sonic thing that rock ‘n’ roll brought, distortion or whatever. All the electronic things that have enhanced the sound of the basic guitar. We are coming from a place where you plug the guitar into the amp and amplify the acoustic sound of the instrument, in that sense yes, we are purists. You can’t deny that because that’s what we’re playing, that’s what we’re dealing with.

But I will say, because I did an article with Jazz Times—I had just done a record of Thelonious Monk tunes and the guy is doing an entire article about why I didn’t use effects. That was what the angle of the story was. I forget his name. He did a story about me and it was something crazy, the angle was, I was just a guy who played through an amp. It wasn’t really about the music or the people I play with. [sic] And I thought, wait a minute, how come they don’t ask the piano player why he just plays piano, how come that’s a valid instrument; or a drummer why he doesn’t play the drum machine, he just plays the drums, they don’t ask him why he’s such a purist. Some guys plug in and play with tremolo.

SK: Like Lou Pallo. He has some analog stuff.

PB: Lou is like early rock ‘n’ roll stuff like Les Paul. I am not saying people should not use effects. I Love Bill Frisell, I love people that use effects, but for me, the angle for people in your line of work, it is supposed to be what makes guys different, rather than ‘he’s this guy because he doesn’t use effects, he doesn’t use delay.’ It is a little bit lazy on that part. He wouldn’t ask a piano player why he isn’t playing synthesizer, or a bassist why he isn’t playing electric bass, so we should be able to play whatever instrument we want, and it is the job of the critic to take the music in its own context and react to it for whatever it is, rather than say I see this guy is playing with effects so he must be coming out of this bag, or he is not playing with effects so he must be coming out of that bag. Since you brought it up, purists and all that.

JB: I didn’t read the article but I am sure Peter is accurate, I have had reviews too that have been about anything but the music. I think that a lot of music critics that review live or recorded stuff, they don’t know enough music, so the only things they understand is the sonic portion of it, ‘what a nice distortion sound’ or—

PB: I think I understand the question. We are purists in that we play acoustic [guitar] through an amplifier, acoustic music. [sic] So we distinguish ourselves by our musical choices.

JB: It’s about the note choices. If you take two notes, A and B, they are the same two notes if you play them with distortion or delay or reverb. What is the context of those two notes? I think it is going in a weird direction. The music critic is supposed to be hipper than the masses; he should know something about the music and not just the effects.

PB: And I was happy to have that article three years ago (or whenever it was), you can call me a purist, I just think…[pause]…you know, you’re kind of being looked at by what you use. Whereas, with a piano player it is this guys plays this, this guy plays that.

SK: Tell me why you are both so faithful to your given guitars? Jimmy Bruno plays a…?

JB: That’s a Sadowsky. I am faithful but not tonight—there’s a Jimmy Bruno model designed and made by Roger Sadowsky. [sic]

SK: Peter, remind me what you’re playing.

PB: I play a Zeidler. This guy makes it from Philly, John Zeidler. He made it in ‘81, so it’s over 30-years-old. I’ve been playing it for about 15 years.

SK: So that’s all you play?

PB: For 15 years that’s what I play. I don’t have anything else.

(Jimmy Bruno shouts to someone named Al outside the interview)

JB: Hey Al, do you see my guitar around somewhere, do you see some guy walking around with it somewhere? [joke]

AM: Yeah. He tried to sell it to me! [laughs]

(Al, the man Bruno is addressing shuffles away from the interview wearing a colloquial smile)

SK: What more affects the sound, the player or the maker of the instrument, Jimmy?

JB: Both. That’s a tough question. I would say the maker has a—an equal say, in the end it comes down to—let me tell you something, you can play a Sears and Roebuck guitar and after three notes I know it’s Peter Bernstein.

SK: How good is Lou Pallo?

JB: He is as good a guitar player as anybody, as anyone is, fantastic guitar player, he is very easy to play with, he knows all the right chords, he has the right feel.

SK: Great texture, he has the soft pick.

JB: I don’t know what pick he’s using. I wish I could get that good, Lou is fantastic.

SK: Why do the dynamics on a ballad sound better when the rhythm section leaves the bandstand?

PB: With the trio up there and us, that is just a lot more sound up there; there is a lot piano, Lou is playing rhythm guitar and bass, so it is thicker sound, when we play duo it is spare.

JB: You’ve got to switch gears in your head, rather quickly.

SK: Peter, would you talk about the difference between playing with an organ trio and playing duet guitar with the Les Paul trio and Jimmy Bruno?

PB: It is totally different, playing with an organ trio is different depending on who is playing the organ, who is playing the drums, in the organ context, things are usually much louder, and there is different energy because of the electricity of the organ. Playing duo with Jimmy is quieter more intimate, you have to kind of be the whole rhythm section when you play with him, when he is taking a solo, with an organ you just comp and find your spot.

JB: You have to be able to adapt to your surroundings.

(As the recording cuts out Jimmy tells me to “write good shit.”)

1 Comment

  • Jul 23, 2013 at 09:27PM Walker314

    Great to read an interview with Bruno and Bernstein, but what simplistic, ignorant questions from Scott Krane. He is exactly the kind of interviewer the 2 of them are complaining about. Maybe he should know something about the genre as well as the people he's interviewing.

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