"I don't like to hear someone play and feel like it's too easy for them. I like to hear them thinking."
Guitarist Peter Bernstein is on the phone from his home in New York City's Washington Heights, describing what attracts him to certain players.
"[Jazz] is about solving problems on some level, working it out, expressing yourself," says Bernstein, who comes to Nashville this weekend for a two-night stand at the Nashville Jazz Workshop's Jazz Cave. "To me the best musicians use whatever limitations they might have to make them stand out."
Bernstein could well be describing himself. Not that you'll notice any obvious limitations in his playing. On the 2011 album Bernstein Goldings Stewart (Live at Smalls), featuring organist Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart, the trio delivers a seriously up-tempo version of Miles Davis' "Milestones," and Bernstein has no problem keeping up. Still, as the changes fly by, it's clear Bernstein is patient, playing the right notes at the right time rather than dazzling with speed and technique.
Bernstein doesn't consider himself a jazz guitarist so much as a jazz musician, and he takes his inspiration from heavyweights on a wide variety of instruments. Sure, he loves guitarists Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall and Jimmy Rainey, but he says his phrasing is most influenced by horn players, his harmonic approach by piano players. One pianist in particular stands out.
"[Thelonious] Monk is one of my favorites," Bernstein says. "I love the mixture of humor and incredible lyricism in his music. It's all there in great balance — the feeling and the intellect."
In 2009, Bernstein recorded a trio album of all Monk tunes. And Monk's influence figures prominently in Bernstein's solo guitar performances.
"With Monk," Bernstein says, "it's really more about what you can imply. [When] playing solo, rather than trying to compensate for people not being there and playing more, you just have to be implying more, rather than trying to overstate it. Monk is very specific about what he puts in the chord and what he leaves out. Very intentional. And the whole thing about what to leave out really intrigues me. Guitar, you have to leave some stuff out. Otherwise you end up playing these stock shapes or sounding like a frustrated piano player with not enough fingers."
2005's Peter Bernstein: Solo Guitar, also recorded live at Smalls jazz club in New York, features some stunning examples of Bernstein's solo work. In particular, his rendition of Monk's "Crepuscule With Nellie," clocking in at just under two-and-a-half minutes, is a sublimely beautiful balance of delicate melody and dissonant tension. But it's Bernstein's take on John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" that really demonstrates the full range of his playing. Coltrane's original is a mind-blowing display of up-tempo lyricism, both a benchmark of hard bop and the bane of many an aspiring jazz musician.
Bernstein says he really got a handle on the song during his frequent work as a sideman with the legendary organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. "He'd break ['Giant Steps'] down, play it out of time and melt it, then put it back together. [My take] was more influenced by that. Open up the tune but stay true to the harmonic movement."
And that's exactly what Bernstein does. Instead of trying to match the relentless ferocity of Coltrane's recording, he deconstructs the song, weaving extended rubato sequences of chords with in-tempo single-note lines. The result is five minutes and 23 seconds of modern jazz guitar at its best. And the word "modern" is significant. Unlike many of his peers, Bernstein eschews effects like overdrive, chorus and delay, preferring a more natural sound. He admits to bristling a bit when music journalists make too big a deal of his straightforward approach, or imply that he's a throwback.
"Why don't you ever hear a writer saying [about a piano player], 'How come this guy doesn't use electronic keyboards?' ... It's kind of a double standard. You can be a modern musician and play the piano. But if you just play the guitar, you're somehow suspect. You must be beholden to the past."
Bernstein clearly isn't beholden to any particular era. That's why he's in demand as both a leader and sideman, working with the greatest names in jazz, among them Sonny Rollins, Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Jimmy Cobb, Diana Krall, Christian McBride, Joe Lovano, Jack McDuff, Lee Konitz, Roy Hargrove and countless others.
Friday's concert will be an intimate evening of solo guitar and duo performances with special guests Pat Bergeson and Chip Henderson. Saturday's performance will be in a quartet setting with the Lori Mechem Trio. From 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Bernstein will lead a master class for high school students at Hume-Fogg High School. For more information, visit nashvillejazz.org.