Peter Bernstein has built a career in the service of others, especially saxophone players and organists. He was in Sonny Rollins’ best working band of the new millennium, and has been crucial to Lou Donaldson and Dr. Lonnie Smith. On Let Loose he slips seamlessly into the role of leader. It is a balanced, polished, erudite guitar recital that was made in one day.
Bernstein’s music is devoid of rough edges yet always sounds bluesy. On a tender song from the 1950s, “Blue Gardenia,” his precise single-note lines trace the melody sincerely, only subtly rephrasing it. Yet his understatements possess the sublimated urgency of someone whose emotional domain is the blues.
With instruments such as piano and electric guitar (as opposed to, say, saxophone), it is slightly perplexing how special players are able to imprint their own sound, their own tonal signatures. Bernstein personalizes every note and makes them glow. The clarity and purity of his guitar sound is beautifully rendered on this recording. (Sonic quality is a strength of the Smoke Sessions label.)
The bassist and drummer here, Doug Weiss and Bill Stewart, have long histories with Bernstein. Pianist Gerald Clayton is a new collaborator. Clayton’s presence creates high expectations. His imaginative daring has transformed many recent ensembles, including major ones like the Charles Lloyd Quartet. But whereas Lloyd gives Clayton space to create his own original art within the leader’s vision, Bernstein keeps Clayton in a box. On ballads like “Tres Palabras” and harder stuff like Woody Shaw’s “Sweet Love of Mine,” both examples of Bernstein’s insightful repertoire decisions, Clayton reinforces the leader’s concept of beauty but does not extend it. The album’s title notwithstanding, one of the few things Bernstein does not do well in music is let loose.
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