Guitarist Peter Bernstein is justly renowned as an interpreter of other people’s music. His unerring, relaxed swing, his stunning gift for crafting and developing sophisticated melodies, the un-showy but absorbing narrative arc of his solos, the just plain rightness of his in-the-moment choices – all of these account for his well-established status as one of the most in-demand musicians on the New York jazz scene.
Let Loose, Bernstein’s debut release for Smoke Sessions Records, shifts the focus to Bernstein the composer. Five of the album’s nine tracks stem from the guitarist’s pen, each of them fulfilling the essential criterion that he sets forth for a worthwhile composition: “The tune has to be fun to play.” It’s a mantra that Bernstein has rehearsed regularly at the club that gives the label its name – even before it had that name. He’s been a regular at Smoke since the days when it was Augie’s, and continues to be a regular presence on its stage.
Due out May 6, Let Loose features a quartet of artists who are equally well versed in tradition and innovation, who can breathe ecstatic life into these pieces while simultaneously anchoring them with deep roots. Bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Bill Stewart are longtime collaborators stretching back nearly three decades to their time together with Bernstein at William Paterson College. Gerald Clayton is the newcomer to the fold but brings along a reputation as one of the most respected pianists of his generation. The quartet found their opportunity to flesh out a sound on one of the most revered stages in all of jazz during a weeklong stint at the Village Vanguard, where they quickly forged their collective voice.
The spirit of the session is pithily captured in the title of the album: Let Loose, another case of simplicity masking complexity. The surface meaning suggests an unbridling of passion, an opening of the floodgates of expression that definitely characterizes the playing of all four members of the quartet. But there’s also the suggestion of the need to allow oneself to be loose, free, open to whatever may come – a guiding principle on the stage as well as off.
“That’s the only way to get through life,” Bernstein says, “to be loose and relaxed, to let things happen. The only way to truly improvise is to deal with the situation at hand and do your best with what’s in front of you.”
That attitude may help to explain why Bernstein can surface in so many vastly different contexts, always retaining his profoundly individual voice while fitting so ideally into whatever situation he finds himself. From his earliest experiences with saxophone giant Lou Donaldson, Bernstein has gone on to work with countless legends, including Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz, and Jimmy Cobb, forming a particularly lasting and significant bond with organ legend Dr. Lonnie Smith. At the same time, he’s worked with a broadly diverse swath of his peers, including Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, Nicholas Payton, Eric Alexander, and a two-year stint with Diana Krall.
The ability to shift so effortlessly from one style to the next has made him in many listeners’ minds the epitome of the New York musician, and it’s a quality he shares with his band mates. Clayton is a second-generation jazz star, the son of bassist John Clayton and nephew of saxophonist Jeff Clayton. He’s become an integral member of their Clayton Brothers band and also spent time on the road and in the studio with Diana Krall; in addition to leading his own bands he’s worked with Roy Hargrove, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Charles Lloyd; he was recently tapped to represent the Monterey Jazz Festival as part of an all-star touring ensemble alongside Nicholas Payton, Ravi Coltrane, and Raul Midón.
Weiss has formed rhythm section partnerships with an eclectic roster of drummers, from Al Foster to Brian Blade to Billy Drummond, and anchored bands led by Brad Mehldau, Eddie Henderson, and Marc Copland. The ever-versatile Stewart has worked with everyone from John Scofield to Maceo Parker to Jim Hall, placing his own stamp on the music whether it’s swinging or funky or modernist.
Let Loose is centered on four new originals written by Bernstein that both seemed of a piece and complementary to one another. The pairing of Bobby Hutcherson and McCoy Tyner wasn’t far from Bernstein’s mind when he wrote the title track, and traces of the two legends’ barbed soulfulness are evident throughout. Bernstein’s solo rides its roiling momentum with bold, stinging lines, followed by Clayton’s sharp-elbowed harmonic convolutions.
Translated from Spanish, “Resplendor” means shine, brightness, glimmer. The obvious English analogue would be “resplendent,” and it’s an apt description of this warm, sun-dappled ballad with its hint of Latin accent. Bernstein opens “Hidden Pockets” with a lyrical statement cushioned by Clayton’s cloud-like accompaniment. The title comes from a line in “Only You,” a love poem by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. Once the band enters, the tune shifts from the contemplative to the ecstatic, reflecting the consuming passion of the source material.
The last of the four new pieces is “Lullaby for B,” a gently lilting tune inspired by Bernstein’s young son Bruno. The final original is “Cupcake,” a reworking of Bernstein’s tune “Carrot Cake” with, as the title implies, the sweetness turned up. It’s got a joyously funky swagger that allows Bernstein to show off his tasteful blues licks and spotlights Stewarts ability to elaborate and ornament a deceptively simple groove.
The album is filled out with four well chosen but far from obvious covers. Cuban songwriter Osvaldo Farrés’ swooning “Tres Palabras” is best known for Nat “King” Cole’s lush rendition, though Bernstein’s interest can be traced once again to Bobby Hutcherson, who recorded it on his 1999 album Skyline. Woody Shaw’s “Sweet Love of Mine” uncoils at a slow, scintillating burn, while “Blue Gardenia,” familiar from Dinah Washington’s beloved version, is a gorgeous ballad featuring Bernstein’s precisely articulated lyricism and a dose of wry Ellingtonia folded into Clayton’s solo. The album closes with Kurt Weill’s “This Is New,” its briskly played melody sparking a barrage from Stewart that picks up on the acute-angle percussiveness of Clayton’s solo.