Still Studying, Inventing and Respecting After All These Years

Peter Bernstein Quartet at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola

By BEN RATLIFF
JAN. 4, 2015
In 1994, the guitarist Peter Bernstein made the record “Signs of Life” for the Dutch label Criss Cross Jazz, with the pianist Brad Mehldau, the bassist Christian McBride and the drummer Greg Hutchinson. Almost exactly 20 years later, starting on Friday, Mr. Bernstein assembled the same band — all of them among the most respected players in jazz — for a three-night run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.

“Signs of Life” captured a young band making straight-ahead jazz informed by music of the 1950s and ’60s: Wes Montgomery, say, or Grant Green. It isn’t a famous record and wasn’t meant to be. Criss Cross albums mostly represent New York’s brass-tacks mainstream, particularly up-and-coming players. They’re clean documents of recording sessions; there’s always valuable information there, but not the sort of art that confuses people at first and provokes a reunion two decades later. Friday’s early set wasn’t four musicians bowing before a landmark greater than themselves. It was something preferable: four musicians picking up where they had left off, putting their individual refinement in standard arrangements.

If “Signs of Life” wasn’t pointing to the future in any appreciable way, it’s an emblematic record for its period, a time of study after a time of radicalism. Early-’80s traditionalists built a serious and argumentative new mainstream, reaffirming what they felt shouldn’t be lost in jazz as its midcentury gods were aging and dying. Early-’80s experimentalists, still inspired by free jazz and renegade factions in art, defended their right to feel that jazz couldn’t be reduced to essentials. What could come after all that?

It wasn’t a question of what — a unified movement — but who and where. It boiled down to places to play, jazz schools as incubators and gathering places, and the collaborative imaginations of individual performers. The jazz program at the New School in New York started in 1986, and Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Mehldau, who were students there in the program’s early years, played together a lot, and often with the drummer Jimmy Cobb, a revered elder. They were deep into melody and tone and the fine mechanics of the postbop tradition; their music was a form of study, invention and respect.

All these musicians have changed in various ways since their mid-20s. If “Signs of Life” tells you something about where they came from, Friday’s early set — which included only one tune from that record — told something, subtly, about where they’ve gone. Mr. Bernstein, still, is a believer in clarity and the essence of a song, and his songs have clear melodic lines. He plays forthrightly with a clean tone and minimal reverb, and won’t overemote on his instrument. He’s not interested in indirection or muddling gestures; on Thelonious Monk’s ballad “Ask Me Now,” or a new up-tempo original piece called “Present Moment,” you felt as if Mr. Bernstein was always polishing the window so that you could see the source material better.

This is a band, among other things, about the science of moderation. When Mr. McBride is a bandleader, he can play all over the range of the bass, manipulating it so fluently it seems like a toy; but here, as a sideman, he receded into the groove, meshing with Mr. Hutchinson. Mr. Mehldau, too, reduced by half the drama he puts in his long, flowing lines and rhythmically challenging phrases when he’s leading his own trio. What remained in his playing was startling: a smooth legato in his improvising, dynamically even, almost lapidary; a manner of accompanying soloists so silky it was almost provocative. (Listen to the 20-year-old “Signs of Life” again: He was very good, but nothing like this.) He connected to the larger picture, contributing to a gig that stayed curious and unprepossessing, not overshadowed by its occasion or back story.