Peter Bernstein, Signs LIVE!

by Sylvannia Garutch

Twenty years after guitarist Peter Bernstein released his album Signs of Life with the backing quartet of pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, Signs LIVE! on Smoke Sessions Records captures the present-day jazz giants in a live setting which was recorded at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The two-disc set documents both sets of the quartets third and final night, there are only eleven tracks, the double-disc is the result of everyone being free to solo with no restrictions or time limits, just pure freedom of expression.

Signs of Life was recorded in four hours in the studio, and that was the last time they all played together, until this reunion date twenty years later. The fame that each member has achieved in that time span is all well documented in the jazz canon; in print, on records, in live performances and on video. The songs performed on Signs LIVE! are mostly originals by Bernstein. There are several songs that were originally recorded for Signs of Life, “Blues for Bulgaria” and “Jive Coffee.” The rest of the set list features Bernstein’s originals: “Let Loose,” “Resplendor,” and “Cupcake” and a pair of Thelonious Monk classics round out the set.

The music certainly has the energy of a live date and the camaraderie and chemistry between the band members is evident. With more than two hours of music, delightful interactions, enthused improvisations and deep listening, Signs LIVE! is certainly a must have.

Both Signs of Life and Signs LIVE! open with ““Blues for Bulgaria,” closely connecting the two recordings. With players as well-known as these, recognizing each player’s own vocabulary and sound is very easy. Since this tune is a regular part of Berstein’s performance catalog, there are numerous ‘Berns-isms’ to be heard. The relaxed tempo combined with a slow harmonic rhythm, allows the listener to set back and enjoy this guitarist unique melodic language.

“Hidden Pockets” is a swinging up-tempo selection that finds the group bringing fourth all the qualities that have made them the luminary players they are today. Bernstein keeps it to a consistent boil, always staying relaxed and never over playing. Mehldau is the highlight on this track. Mehldau’s melodic improvisational approach balances unlimited technical facility with persistent motivic development and a distinguishing rhythmic sophistication unique to his playing. The swing laid down by the rhythm section McBride and Hutchinson creates such a huge rhythmic pad for both Bernstein and Mehldau to express subtle rhythmic tensions and releases at will.

“All Too Real” finds the group back in the land of exciting up-tempo swing.  Bernstein’s careful development of arpeggio structures employed with in the pocket rhythm is outstanding. Mehldau’s further exploring of recurring rhythmic motifs, creating tension with perfectly resolving harmonic and rhythmic cadences is an auditory treat. His snaking chromatic approach to his single note melodies combined with his well-placed chordal figures, provide both accompaniment interest and counterpoint.

With this, Bernstein’s second outing with these extraordinary players, we get to hear the remarkable technique, innate sense of swing, and the distinctive sound and vocabulary these players have, with twenty years in between recordings. Bernstein’s guitar playing is still unique, his melodic textures and tone colors reveal his considerable inventive melodic art. This latest album is further proof that Bernstein is one of the top guitarists in jazz, here backed by his superb quartet of masterful musicians, coming full circle to create beauty beyond compare.

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