Last month, Peter Bernstein arrived at Smalls, armed with his guitar and a small amp, to play an intimate solo gig. The crowd was a good one for an early evening set on a Wednesday and was bolstered by the presence of legendary trombonist Roswell Rudd. As the Yankees were winning the World Series a borough away, Bernstein was deciding tunes on the spot, running through pieces like "It Could Happen To You" and Monk numbers like "Light Blue" and "Coming on the Hudson" in firm, compact versions. Several young guitarists were in the audience, no doubt drinking in Bernstein's dry tone and playful stabs at dissonance and syncopation. The guitarist's demeanor was focused yet amused (though Bernstein claims more horror than amusement), as he, along with the rest of listeners, was appreciating the sounds he was creating.
Amazingly, this was only Bernstein's fourth ever solo gig, a new foray he began at the West Village club in July. "It's really just kind of an experiment," says Bernstein before a set at Smoke with organist Mike LeDonne's quartet. "I thought maybe it would be a chance, in a low-key setting, to tackle that and get my feet wet. But I didn't realize that, even though it's an early show and it's Smalls and it's relatively informal and casual, it's a listening audience so it's more like a recital." It is hard to think that Bernstein, age 42, has something that he hasn't done in his already varied and compelling career. Having been part of the bands of seminal players like Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Cobb and Dr. Lonnie Smith as well as those of peers like Larry Goldings, Eric Alexander and Joshua Redman, Bernstein's discography is voluminous, starting with a dream participation in the 1990 concert album Jim Hall and Friends Live at Town Hall.
Since that date, done while he was still a student at the New School, Bernstein established himself both as a leaderseven albums, most for the Criss Cross labeland a desirable sideman. A listen to one of his recent appearances, Don Friedman's Waltz for Marilyn (Jazz Excursion) or David "Fathead" Newman's final recording The Blessing (HighNote) reveals a sensitive and adventurous player who, above all, always sounds like himself. This may seem like a truism but in Bernstein's case, it has driven his development. "To me it's never been a thing of trying to recreate something or try to play someone else's sound, play someone else's stuff," he says. "It's just trying to develop a relationship with the instrument that's personal and then just keep my ears open to whatever attracts me. And listening to non-guitar players has done so much for me, trying to emulate the phrasing of horn players or different people's harmonic conceptions regardless of their instrument because then you have to translate or adapt it and you have kind of an obstacle to deal with in terms of playing the instrument." In Bernstein's playing, one can hear the lessons he must have picked up growing up in New York and seeing concerts by such players as Hall and Joe Pass (his first ever real jazz show and, to show that things come full circle, a solo performance) or listening to guitarists as diverse as Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery to John McLaughlin and first love Jimi Hendrix. "The players that seemed to have a more personal sound," observes Bernstein, "they just played the instrument, like Jim Hall or Kenny Burrell or Grant Green, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Raney, it was their touch that really made their sound."
For those that like to oversimplify or categorize their jazz, Bernstein might seem to fit into the straight-ahead axis, given his associations and lack of modernist touches like effect pedals. But more accurately and refreshingly, Bernstein belongs to an older conception of jazz musician, one where people played with honesty, the results brimming with sincerity and transcending genre divisions, a lineage that stretches through figures like Ellington, Montgomery and Thelonious Monk. "To be on the cutting edge is to really improvise, however it comes out, if it comes out hip or it comes out old-fashioned, being on the cutting edge means you're really improvising and going up there without an agenda. I always try to keep that in my head, just because something looks hip doesn't necessarily mean that it's hip."