Peter Bernstein Trio: Live at Smoke – Jazz Guitar Life DVD Review

As much as I love sitting down and listening to great Jazz Guitar playing, watching it seems to make the event that much more complete. At least that is how I felt after viewing the Mel Bay Records DVD release of Peter Bernstein’s Trio Live at Smoke. Peter Bernstein, organist Larry Goldings, and drummer Bill Stewart, deliver a KO performance to a packed room of very appreciative customers. And no wonder! The audience was witness to three of the hottest players on the scene today digging into some great tunes and dishing out some dynamic improvisations.

This is immediately evident from the first tune “Dragonfly”, written by Bernstein, to the last tune “Night Mist Blues” written by Ahmad Jamal. In all there are eight tunes (89 minutes of great music) providing a nice mixture of original compositions and standards that feature rousing performances from each member of the group. And while this is definitely Bernstein’s gig, Goldings and Stewart get their fair share of solo space while supplying highly sensitive musical support. Check out the Bernstein original “Jive Coffee” for some serious group dynamics. Definitely a delight to watch as the interplay between each player reminds us that the art of playing live rests not only in one’s hands but also in one’s ears. Of special note is the incredible drumming of Bill Stewart who is just a marvel to watch as he displays great chops and a keen sense of time. Of course, Larry Goldings is no slouch as he demonstrates on each tune performed. Truly inspirational playing from all.

Inspirational is also a word I would use to describe Bernstein as he plays a satisfying mix of modern day improvisational fare alongside some “old-school” blues. His playing is extremely melodic as he navigates the chord changes of each tune just playing what’s needed, nothing more, nothing less. It is this desired ability that makes me think that Peter Bernstein could possibly be this generations Jim Hall. Every note has a place within the context of the tune and like Jim Hall, Bernstein’s playing is very deliberate and intentional. You can almost see the thought process involved as he “mouths” the notes he is enticing from the fret-board. Bernstein’s chops reside just as much in his musical mind as they do in his hands.

Bernstein also has the technique to back up what he’s thinking. Just check out the explosive intro to the first chorus of the Irving Berlin classic “Puttin’ On The Ritz” as Bernstein “tears” up the finger board in his own unique way on this up-tempo swinging tune. Or check out his funky playing on his own “Bobblehead” as he not only plays some serious single note lines but also throws in some cool chord soloing interspersed with octaves, double stops, and subtle string bends that make for a very interesting solo indeed. Of course these are just sonic embellishments to what really matters, his unique note choices.

Speaking of unique note choices, one just has to listen to the Sammy Cahn ballad “I Should Care” to hear a lesson in taste, sensitivity and musical development from Bernstein alongside Goldings and Stewart. As well, the Ahmad Jamal tune “Night Mist Blues” offers us some tasty playing as Bernstein digs into his blues pocket to “bring it on home” as it were. And just listen (and watch) Bernstein’s comping behind Goldings solo on the Goldings composition “The Acrobat” to hear a talented player at work. That alone is worth the cost of this DVD. Great stuff!

As you can probably tell I really, really like this DVD. Apart from the obvious, which is the great playing from each member, I also like the fact that this is a great way to see an inspiring guitarist in his element on the bandstand. Due to my geographic location, I am less likely to get to see Peter Bernstein any time sooner than those fortunate people who live in New York City. So this is the next best thing. Actually it’s a tad better because I can view it anytime I want to. And believe me, I’ve been watching it a lot lately!

Apart from the entertainment value, it is also quite educational as you get to see all the elements that make up a professional working trio in action. Plus there are some great close-ups of Bernstein’s playing. And if nothing else, there’s a bunch of shots of a cute blonde server every now and then which just adds to the “being there” feeling I get when watching this DVD.

Seriously though, if you are a fan of Peter Bernstein or have wanted to check him out, then this DVD is a great opportunity to see a wonderful and talented musician doing his thing. It’s the next best thing to being there.

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