My Bob Berg Story

When I started studying jazz at Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1995, my knowledge of jazz history was nascent, and I was constantly inundated by my lecturers with the names of players and albums I hadn't heard of before, and that were essential listening for a burgeoning jazz drummer. I remember lecturer and brilliant tenor saxophonist Gordon Brisker once telling the student cohort to think of our minds as funnels in that it would take a long time for all the information that was pouring in at the time to drip through into our conscious awareness. Some pearls of wisdom from those times are still dripping through and starting to make sense for the first time only now, some 22 years later.

Cedar Walton Quartet
My combo lecturer that year was bassist Craig Scott. Craig was the first person to turn me onto Billy Higgins' drumming when he mentioned Cedar Walton's trio. I started listening fairly heavily to the trio with Sam Jones on bass, as well as to the Cedar Walton Quartet that featured a young Bob Berg alongside Jones and Higgins. In particular I was enjoying the incredible live sets that were recordings around the same year I was born - 1977. I loved Higgins' touch on the drums and cymbals, and for a few months I tried to craft my sound around replicating the way he sounded. The untouchably melodic sensibility he displayed in his solos still astonishes me.

Chick Corea Quartet
By 1997 I'd begun tracing the lineage through to contemporary times, and, as well as continuing to listen to Higgins, I also become obsessed with listening to Jack DeJohnette, Victor Lewis, Adam Nussbaum, Billy Hart, Peter Erskine, Jeff 'Tain' Watts, Jon Christenson, Al Foster, and Roy Haynes. I wanted so much to develop a sound on the drums for myself that was to somehow one day be a tasty synthesis of all their sounds combined. In April 1997 I read an interview with drummer Gary Novak in Modern Drummer Magazine, and, without having previously heard any recordings of him, there was something in the way he was talking about jazz drumming that made me want to check out some recordings he was on. He was talking about touch and improvising in a particular was that struck a resonant chord for me. I could relate to the names and sensibilities he described, and so I asked around The Con if anyone had a copy of the Chick Corea Quartet's 1995 release Time Warp that featured Novak alongside Bob Berg and bassist John Patitucci. Thankfully my tenor saxophone-playing buddy Ben Savage had a copy on CD, and so loaned me a cassette tape copy to check out.

I put the tape on in my car as I drove home from The Con that night, and by the time I was just around the corner from my house, the piece 'New Life' was playing. There was something wildly explosive about the energy forming the obvious bond between Berg and Novak that made me so excited I had to pull the car over and stop to listen. I was hearing an energy on a similarly high level to what I'd heard in recordings of John Coltrane and Elvin Jones playing together, but I'd never heard drumming quite like that before - it was as though that Novak interview I'd read had come to life in an aurally holographic spectrum of time, tone and touch on the drums!

I've already used the adjective 'untouchable' in relation to Billy Higgins' melodicism, but I feel like using it again here to describe my perception of pretty much everything to do with American jazz and its culture in general from where I see it: untouchable in just about every conceivable way. There's the sheer geographical distance between America and Australia that the Pacific Ocean represents; the gruelling 14-hour non-stop long-haul flight to get to and / or from America's west coast; and, amongst other things, the cost and immense organisation that goes into making just one of these trips. In my mind at the time, and still now to some extent, this perspective on America and American jazz has had two overwhelming effects on my psyche; one positive, and one negative. On the negative side, by all accounts the notion of establishing a career and making connections that involved American jazz musicians seemed all but impossible. On the positive side, from time to time, American jazz musicians would tour Australia and play in our local clubs. These experiences are still incredible highlights for me as they happen, although, seemingly fewer and far between these days for whatever reason. The most recent highlight for me at the time of this writing was seeing the Steve Gadd Band play at The Basement in Sydney in December 2016. It's really difficult to discern if my reception of these gigs is distorted by immense cognitive bias based on the perceived prohibitive difficulties I described just now, or if these experiences are truly on such an incredibly rare and high level that these guys are truly geniuses in their own ways. Either way or both, these are such exciting events for me and for most of my Sydney mates to experience that there's an exhilarating energy present whenever any high profile American jazz gigs take place in Sydney.

Tribal Tech in Sydney
The foregoing serves to set Bob Berg up as one of those gods in the sky whom, for a then 21-year-old Australian country boy relatively new to Sydney, was untouchable for all the reasons mentioned above, and the idea of ever meeting or engaging with him seemed an impossible dream. In January 1998, however, I received a surprise phone call from Gordon Brisker who said that Bob was to be in Sydney the following April and that he was going to give a workshop at The Con. Gordon asked if I could be the drummer for this workshop alongside pianist Peter Roberts, and bassist Mark Lau - also final year students at The Con. I dropped the phone. Well, actually, I don't think I dropped the phone, but, if I didn't, the feeling I remember being overwhelmed with at the time of the call was so intense that I don't remember what happened and so I might as well have dropped the phone. Bob was scheduled to play at The Basement for a week with Gary Willis, Scott Kinsey and Dennis Chambers in the band Tribal Tech.

The day finally arrived in late April just short of my 22nd birthday when Bob Berg arrived to present his workshop at The Con, and to play with us. We met in Gordon's office and, after getting used to his serious and seemingly brash New York demeanour, he seemed pretty cool with us. We talked over a few tunes and decided to play 'Stella By Starlight', which he'd just been playing on tour with Corea. We also chose 'Soul Eyes', and 'Impressions'. He said at some point that he would never usually do one of these things with a student band, which only increased the feeling of the size of the lump that was already in my throat.

We walked into the performance space, and the room was full with what appeared to be maybe up to two hundred people. Looking around, it seemed that just about every saxophone player in Sydney was there, as well as other instrumentalists and enthusiasts. Bob called 'Stella' and we started playing. There's something that, for me, takes over when I get the all-too-rare chance to play with one of my heroes. It's an extra energy, a kind of psychic energy that seems latent the rest of the time. By hero, I mean a musician on a super high level of musical operation I deeply admire - a complete virtuoso, and a humanist; someone who can bring the best out of you simply by virtue of their playing alone. I'm not saying for a second that my playing rose to as high a level as a Higgins, a Novak or a Chambers is capable of rising to, but the power behind Bob's playing sure did draw out the maximum I was capable of during these three tunes. I still like to call 'Soul Eyes' if I'm calling a ballad on a jam session or a pick-up gig because of my memory of how beautiful it was to play that tune with Bob.

'Stella' and 'Soul Eyes' were fairly straight ahead, and then came 'Impression'. Bob announced to the room that we were about to play 'Impressions', and then, before he counted it off, he turned to the band and said - loud enough for the room to hear - 'ok, after a while in my solo, let me and the drums have it.' So I got mentally as ready as I could for whatever was going to happen. He counted the tune in, and we were off. Bob started to solo first. After only two choruses, he stopped and let Peter solo on the piano. So that I could concentrate as fully as I could on what was coming in through my ears, I had my eyes shut. I simply thought something along the lines of 'oh gee, we mustn't be cooking enough for Bob to keep going into the two-out bit', and so I somewhat disappointedly played on.

Next thing, there's this bellowing voice in my left ear that shocked me into opening my eyes to see what was going on. Bob was right in my face, and he more or less yelled at me the following: 'When you play with me, don't play four on the hi-hat!' Nervously, I nodded my head in compliance, and started to concentrate on only playing beats two and four with my left-foot hi-hat. You see, I'd just started getting into Tony Williams, and I was so used to exploring the colour of playing all four beats on the hi-hat like he did that I wasn't even aware that I was playing it like that at the time, and I wasn't so used to sticking with only two and four. My mind said to me, 'oh what's the point anyway, he's already played, so when are you ever going to get a chance to do it properly for him?' And, after Peter took a chorus or two on the piano, Bob came right back in to play a second solo. This is where the recording on the embedded YouTube clip below begins.

Bob played a chorus, and then signalled to the guys to lay out and let he and I 'have it'. I had no idea how long we were going to play together for, but he seemed to keep going for chorus after chorus until, at one point, I conceded that we may very well go on together for a very long time - perhaps it'll never end! I had never played with anyone of such formidable strength on the tenor saxophone, nor on any other instrument. And, when I think back to the experience whilst writing this, he may very well be the strongest musician I remember playing with. I remember feeling at the time that there was something in the propulsion of his time feel that felt stronger than any bass player I could remember having played with to that point. It was also a lesson in stamina and pacing.

To this day, those were five of the most highlight minutes of my life.  Thankfully, Willow Nielson caught my duet with Bob on his minidisc recorder.  Despite the lo-fi nature of the sound, I thought I'd put it up here so you could hear the great man again and to hear what he could pull out of a 21-year-old kid drummer with his tenor.

Thanks Gordon, and thanks Bob - both of whom left this world too soon.

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