The chances that you might also see Berg with a surfcasting rod on the far eastern shores of Long Island, or visiting an art museum close to one of his gigs, are higher than ever as well.
After having been a top call musician for over 30 years, having a Grammy nomination in '93 for "Back Roads," and playing with a virtual catalog of improvising artists, Berg currently leads a quartet with monster pianist, Dave Kikowski, bassist Ed Howard and drummer Gary Novak. Berg also continues to seek and explore new vistas in both writing and improvisation.
JazzReview: Ok, I have to ask about the surfcasting. You're pictured with a 16 lb. Bluefish on the website and you look pretty happy about it. So, what's the deal there? How long have you been fishing, how often and where do you go?
Bob Berg: Good one. Well, in the late 80's I moved from New York City to a fairly small town on the east end of Long Island. It's pretty rural with some of the most beautiful beaches on the East Coast. After living in the city my whole life, I was used to a lot of activity with always something to do, but life is a bit slower in the country. I needed, dare I say it, a hobby. After observing some of the locals catching nice-sized Striped Bass in the surf, I thought I'd give it a try. In a short time, I became completely obsessed by surfcasting and can truly say it's a great way to experience the power of nature. A Nor'easter at Montauk can be brutal. It's serene yet a bit dangerous. It's also a great way to put something on the table.
JazzReview: Sounds like you really found something that's more than a hobby. There's a Metheny quote in his Songbook regarding the etymology of the tune "Pretty Scattered' from "80/81" that reads: "Pretty Scattered - Written early 1980. During the period before the recording of 1980-1981, I did a number of gigs with different musicians at Ryle's, trying out new music. This piece was written for a gig that featured Bob Berg on tenor, one of my favorite players." Great comment and a great tune that’s not really a snap. He didn't make it easy on you. Can you talk about those gigs/times?
Bob Berg: I remember having a great time with Pat on those gigs. Ryle's is a small local joint (Central Cambridge, MA) and it was packed to the rafters. I played with a few different rhythm sections, all of who sounded good. I got together with Pat on the day of the first gig and we went over the music. Some of the charts were tricky, but Pat's such a natural at both writing and playing, that things just fell into place. I remember these gigs as being quite inspirational, very fresh and new. Some of the tunes had an Ornettish quality. Actually, Pat asked me to play on the 80/81 sessions, but unfortunately I had a prior commitment that I just couldn't get out of. What a drag. It's a landmark record. I would have loved to have been part of it.
JazzReview: Wow, you're kidding? I had no idea. That would've been great. Who else was on that gig?
Bob Berg: Sorry, don't remember the exact personnel. It's a long time ago.
JazzReview: I take it you met Mike there? Who else were you gigging with then?
Bob Berg: Again, I don't know if that's the first time I met Mike. At the time I was pretty busy in New York and touring with Cedar Walton's band, which was an amazing straight-ahead quartet. I really felt honored to play with these guys Cedar, Sam Jones, Billy Higgins. These were some of the people I came up listening to, and it was a great lesson in swing. Actually, up to this point I was known solely as a straight-ahead player, after gigging extensively with Horace Silver and Cedar.
JazzReview: That's right. You had the Miles gig together as well. It's been said that going through Miles' group prepares you to be a leader as well as anything. Can you describe that experience and what you learned from Miles?
Bob Berg: Yeah, Mike came back to the Miles gig after Scofield left. I kind of lobbied for him because I knew he'd be great and I'm a bit selfish. Anyway, it lasted for a while, but I think Mike was ready to move on. During that time Mike and I were also doing some co-led gigs around New York, mainly at 7th Avenue South. We tried different rhythm sections and had a ball. It was at that point that we decided to work together at some juncture.
I'm not sure if the bands I was involved in with Miles were particularly encouraging for future leadership, but his earlier bands definitely had that effect. In the earlier bands, I think the individual members had more input into the direction of the music, and leadership was a natural outgrowth of this input. This wasn't so much the case when I was there. The standout impression I have of the Miles years was how great it was to hear him play. For most of my tenure, his chops were way up, and man, was that impressive!
JazzReview: That's great, especially considering all the heat he took for other things like changing styles of music and personnel. The Stern/Berg band was very successful for many years. You were both regularly releasing solo albums that you'd both play on, and touring. There was a lot of both critical acclaim, artistic success, and one would hope financial rewards as well. It really was one of the most happening units in creative music for years. What happened to that group?
Bob Berg: Playing with Mike was really a gas. When we finally got it together after both having prior commitments, we were more than ready. I think we worked well together and had some kind of natural balance that made things interesting. Yeah, we were pretty successful and people seemed to enjoy the chemistry. We had a good run and we worked on each other's records. Mike is not only a great player, but he writes his ass off. We wrote on our own, just suggested things to each other. Unfortunately, we had separate record deals and never did a Stern/Berg project, not counting the bootlegs.
JazzReview: Right. Still, as well as you guys blended, supported each other and seemed to be on the same wavelength, all the solo projects appeared to be co-led things. I know Mike has worked with Banacos and Grana for years. Did you ever hookup with them or other great teachers?
Bob Berg: The only really great teacher I had was Joe Allard. He was the Dean of American saxophone teachers and a very inspiring guy. He was a genius at getting people to play in a correct, but very natural way.
JazzReview: You also worked with Leni on some of her initial releases, "Clairvoyant," "The Next Day," and "Secrets." Those were some nice recordings with players like Frisell, Harvie Swartz, Dennis Chambers, and Wayne Krantz. Did you guys work much live?
Bob Berg: I only recorded with Leni, never had the chance to do any gigs. What a sweetheart, and she writes some nice tunes.
JazzReview: Absolutely. She's great, and has good taste in sidemen. After the band with Stern you started working with Chick. What were your experiences with that band, Patitucci, Weckl, etc?
Bob Berg: I knew Chick for years and would run into him occasionally on the road. Sat in with him somewhere in France when I was with Miles and we had a great time playing. He's always been one of my favorite musicians and people, so when he asked me to do a summer tour with Gadd and Gomez, I jumped at the opportunity. We had such a good time that Chick decided to put together a regularly working quartet, myself included, with John on bass, and eventually Gary Novak on drums. This band was some of the most fun I've ever had musically. I think the greatest leaders hire sidemen to be themselves and Chick always gave me the green light. It was also a personal groove with a real family vibe. Chick's writing killed me and the band could go anywhere. It was truly an adventurous unit. I really wanted to play again in an all acoustic setting, so consequently, I decided to give some time to Chick in lieu of the band I had with Mike. Both of these bands were great learning experiences.
JazzReview: They had to be. The first time I ever ran across your playing was in Cedar Walton's "Eastern Rebellion" projects. That was a great group with Billy Higgins and Sam Jones. What were your experiences with that group and playing with players of that caliber at your age?
Bob Berg: I was 18 when I left Julliard after being offered a gig with Jack McDuff. Unfortunately I wasn't completely ready for life on the road. Travel was a bit different back in the late 60's and I was also a bit arrogant and stubborn about the style of music I wanted to play. I was into late Trane at the time. So, I left the band after only a short stay. Could have learned a lot more had I stayed. In one way it was good because I went back to New York and really had a chance to broaden my musical scope and further my skills. When Horace hired me a couple years later, it was a different ballgame. The band was great. I was a bit more mature, but not much. Horace was a great guy and very supportive. This band was my jazz education. We did a lot of touring and the band played well consistently. Tom Harrell killed! It was kind of the end of an era, where you could play at clubs across the country for a week at a time. What a way to learn!
JazzReview: I heard somewhere you weren't going to put "Friday Night at the Cadillac Club" on the "Short Stories" record, but it's a great tune. What's the deal there?
Bob Berg: "Friday Night" is my homage to the organ trio thing, which was quite popular in the late 60's. For some reason when I first heard that sound as a teenager, it seemed very exotic and really hip. This is coming from someone who grew up in an Italian-Jewish blue-collar neighborhood in Brooklyn. We didn't hear much, if any, jazz in Bensonhurst, so when I heard these, what for me were new sounds on the local New York jazz station, I was mesmerized. The first gig I did get to play with McDuff was at a club in Newark called the Cadillac Club. I was 18. Man, talk about culture shock. The joint was packed with pimps, whores and jazz fans and it was rockin'. I tried to capture that feeling in this tune. I don't recall not wanting to record it, but I'm quite self-critical about my composing, so anything's possible.
JazzReview: That's a great story. Interesting that you were struck the way that it usually hits guitar players. I can really relate. Some of my favorite albums of all time are those organ trios with Wes & Jimmy Smith, Don Patterson and Benson, Martino, or Burrell on guitar. Who was on guitar when you played with McDuff? Martino, used to play with him a lot. Did you ever get a chance to meet or play together?
Bob Berg: You know, I don't remember who was playing guitar at the time...only did the gig for a short time...but if Martino had been there at that time, I would have stayed to be sure. I met Pat at a shared gig at the Blue Note last year...great guy, great player. We talked about doing something, but haven't yet.
JazzReview: Pat's really incredible, one of my all-time favorites for many years. How do you go about composing?
Bob Berg: I don't have any particular method to composing. Tunes can be inspired by a certain melodic motif, or a groove, or a general impression. For me, it's a lot of work to write. I think of myself more as an interpreter than a composer. I never did study composition formally - probably should. I just do a lot of listening.
JazzReview: What is your philosophy of music, touring, teaching, and life as a musician?
Bob Berg: To me, music is the most emotionally immediate of the arts. As musicians, we get to communicate our innermost feelings and impulses to others. I feel this is a great gift. I've always tried to be honest and true to the musical ideals I've admired in the masters. I've tried to follow these principles in all my musical pursuits, playing, teaching, etc. I know it sounds corny, but I think music is some kind of sacred thing. I know from personal experience that at its best, music can elevate the spirit. That's what I was drawn to when I was a kid. Of course, life as a musician can sometimes be tough, but I'm constantly reminded by the music about priorities.
JazzReview: Right tough and great, and back again. But it's like if the spirit of it gets to you, you seem to have to follow it. Who were your original influences?
Bob Berg: The first records I heard were Bird, Mingus, and Horace Silver. This goes way back to Junior High School where my music teacher was a big jazz fan. He saw some potential in my playing, so he laid these records on me. Shortly after this, I asked my Dad to pick up the most current Coltrane record when he went to work in Manhattan. He came home with "A Love Supreme." I think hearing that record changed my life. What a powerful statement. I became a complete Trane nut, but realized sometime later that I had to check everyone out. My main saxophone influences were Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Bird, and Cannonball to name a few. Some others: Miles, Chick, McCoy, Elvin, Sinatra, Bartok.
Occasionally, I see myself referred to as a "Brecker influenced" player, which strikes me as inaccurate. Mike's one of my favorite players and a great guy, we did quite a bit of hanging and playing together in our formative years, but we both have similar influences and have honed our styles from similar sources. I'm influenced by everything I hear, but feel my style of playing is an extension of the musicians I heard while growing up. I also spent a lot of time listening to ethnic music. I mean the real thing, not so-called world music tribal music of Africa, Indian classical, Japanese Noh and Gagaku. Man, I love it all! I still listen to my old favs, but try to check out as many of the new things as I can. I've always enjoyed vocal music, maybe because I'm instrumentalist. Guess Sinatra is still my main man. Classical still amazes me, from Mozart to Ravel to Bartok. Talk about composing!
JazzReview: No kidding. Just Bach alone. Can you talk about the new Steps Ahead group?
Bob Berg: Playing with Manieri, Erskine, Elaine, and Marc is great fun. We'll be touring later on this year, mainly in Europe. We did a big tour a couple of years ago and recorded just about every night. Mike just sent me the tapes and it all sounds excellent. We'll be releasing an album in the next few months.
JazzReview: That's great. Put me on the list. What about the Jazztimes group with Randy Brecker and Dennis Chambers?
Bob Berg: The Superband was a good idea monster players and a lot of gig offers. Somehow things didn't really take off management wise, and it kind of fizzled out. Too bad!
JazzReview: That's hard to believe. Who's in that group, and what and where are you playing?
Bob Berg: I've been touring with my quartet on and off for the last several years. It's been some of the most fun I've had. The usual lineup has been, Dave Kikoski, Ed Howard and Gary Novak, the band that's on the CD "Another Standard", which I feel is my best-recorded effort to date. We'll probably be going back out later on this year although we usually head overseas. Right now I'm writing some new music, but there are no immediate dates scheduled.
JazzReview: Same guys I heard with Roy Haynes about 5 years ago. Kikowski's a great player. Both of them are. Do you get involved with the design of your disc artwork and/or web design at all?
Bob Berg: I've been a bit involved with the visuals on albums, although I'm obviously no expert. Sometimes as in all things, less is more, and some of my favorite album covers are the simple ones. I am very interested in art, especially paintings from pre-renaissance to abstract expressionism. Spent my share of time in museums and galleries. One of the great things about traveling is that you can visit a cathedral in Italy, or a mosque in Istanbul, or a temple in Tokyo. Some of the best art can be found in these places, if you have the time.
JazzReview: Absolutely. I'm always interested in what extra musical pursuits inspire a favorite musician and what other mediums they are creative in themselves. You mention art. What artists do you favor, if any? I guess I lean towards Klee, Modigliani, Miro, Matisse, Pollack, Picasso, and Van Gogh and got to tour the VG museum when it first opened in the mid 80's.
Bob Berg: It's funny you should mention Pollock. He lived about five minutes from my house. Willem DeKooning lived on the next street ‘til he died a few years ago. My kids used to trick or treat at his house. My taste in art runs a stylistic gamut. I love early renaissance Italian painting, Vermeer, Impressionism, and Expressionism. I've always loved Kandinsky and Klee, too.
JazzReview: That's amazing. Did you know that before moving there? Looks like a great place to reflect, work, and think.
Bob Berg: You know, I've heard it repeatedly said that the light on the end is special. I've heard that this is one of the main reasons that so many artists were drawn to the area. Some of the best DeKooning's I've seen were painted right here abstract landscapes and such. It's interesting, if you visit the local cemetery you can see the gravesites of many of the abstract expressionists...Pollock, Lee Krasner, Barnett, Newman, Stuart Davis, and I think DeKooning.
I've personally felt inspired by the area at different points...most pronounced on a CD called "Back Roads" ('93 Grammy nominee), but I'm a city boy by nature and feel my music has been shaped in the most part from my New York City upbringing. I still love the place. Guess it's in the blood. The older I get, the more I appreciate a wide spectrum of disciplines.
JazzReview: Exactly. I guess it's the progression of artistic development and appreciation.
Bob Berg: Have you been to the Met in New York?
JazzReview: Years ago and also MOMA but haven't seen the Guggenhiem. It's on the list.
Bob Berg: They have one of the best collections of tribal art I've seen great masks from Africa to Oceania.
JazzReview: Cool. And what are amazing are those artists including Picasso, Miro, Matisse, Klee, Modigliani, Henry Moore and others, all owned and used African tribal sculpture for inspiration in their own work. I guess wherever inspiration comes from is as good a place as any. Thanks very much for your insights. I appreciate it. Great stories, too.
Bob Berg: It's been really nice working with you and I can see we have a lot of common interests. We should keep the lines open and if you're coming this way let me know.
JazzReview: For sure. Thanks for your time, Bob, and all the best with the record and touring, and everything.