Guitarist Peter Bernstein Emerges With Elite Quartet on ‘What Comes Next’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Go ahead. Look again at that title: Bernstein very deliberately left off the question mark. Surely, it’s a phrase we have all uttered more than we care to recognize during this uneven, unpredictable and seemingly directionless 2020. One answer may come relatively soon in the form of the Presidential election but now Trump’s illness and a myriad of other factors cloud that event too. In any case, the musicians have had their livelihoods put on hold during this pandemic and guitarist Peter Bernstein chose instead to make a statement, recording What Comes Next, his 26th album as a leader, in the midst of quarantine. 

“Without the question mark, What Comes Next implies that you have some idea, some intention,” Bernstein explains. “That seems like such a huge concept now, but it’s inherent to the very idea of playing jazz. It’s the basic question that we deal with all the time when we’re given the freedom to improvise: now what do I play? What note should come next? Where are we in the conversation? With everybody’s lives being put on hold, that idea can be extended beyond the fact of just playing music.” With tour schedules and conflicting dates posing little if any constraints, Bernstein assembled a dream quartet for the date. He’s joined by Grammy-winning pianist Sullivan Fortner (Cécile McLorin Salvant, Roy Hargrove), drummer and frequent collaborator Joe Farnsworth (McCoy Tyner, Pharaoh Sanders, Wynton Marsalis ) and for the first time on one of the guitarist’s own sessions by the esteemed bassist Peter Washington (Bill Charlap, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, two artists among the 400 recordings he has appeared on as a sideman. Washington also appears on the recently issued Joe Farnsworth’s Time to Swing which issued just a couple of weeks ago and covered on these pages.)

Here’s how the proceedings went for the recording. New York’s legendary Sear Sound studio reached out to Smoke Sessions, the label, about the possibility of attempting a responsible recording date. The label quickly sprang into action developing a plan to test everyone in advance and then to adhere to social distancing and wearing masks while in the studio. Three months of isolation had given Bernstein plenty of opportunity to compose some new music. Two of the pieces were written in quarantine: the title tune, which feels like a tentative but optimistic waltz into an undetermined future; and the melancholy “Empty Streets,” which reflects the unsettling feeling of living in one of the most hectic and densely populated cities on the planet and finding it devoid of its usual humanity. Bernstein didn’t set out to write music confronting the tenor of the times, but the feeling inevitably seeped into his songs. “I try to let a tune write itself as much as possible,” he describes. “I tend to tinker with music for a long time until it feels like it has its own identity. I try to get inside the consciousness of what I’ve written and then ask, ‘What does it want to be next?’

Like the desolate calm outside depicted in the album art, music begins in a relaxed fashion with the aptly named opener, “Simple as That,” a mainstay of his repertoire, originally recorded on his album Heart’s Content in 2003. He had performed it several times with Fortner and Farnsworth during his week-long stint at the iconic Village Vanguard, just before the club shuttered its doors for the foreseeable future. Beginning in a mellow fashion allows the album to build as there are plenty of joyous and upbeat moments too. The gritty, mid-tempo “Blood Wolf Moon Blues” was originally recorded on Jimmy Cobb’s 2019 Smoke Sessions album This I Dig of You, the drum giant’s final date, which also featured the late pianist Harold Mabern. Bernstein reprised the tune in memory of both lost elders and dedicates the album to their memory. Two more Bernstein originals make their debuts here: the blistering “Harbor No Illusions” is a challenging piece for the band, which navigates the tricky harmonic twists and turns agilely. “Dance In Your Blood” takes its title from a poem by the 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi, the music reflecting dance-like movement and is, according to Bernstein all about expression and nuance.

This also marks the premiere recording of a tune by Sonny Rollins in the tenor giant’s inimitable calypso style with “Newark News.” It becomes the perfect vehicle for Farnsworth and Washington to have their convivial dialogues. Bernstein had performed the tune live with Rollins during a series of concerts in 2010 and 2011: and received the jazz icon’s blessing to record it. In addition to his own tunes, Bernstein decided to add a killer interpretation of Dizzy Gillespie’s popular “Con Alma,” showcasing the band’s abilities to put their own stamp on the most familiar of tunes. Finally, the elegant standard “We’ll Be Together Again” offers a positive outlook as Bernstein takes the song’s only solo, suggesting a lone musician’s dream of a day when stages will be shared once again. 

Throughout this recording, Bernstein stays mostly in the forefront so it’s easy to focus on his fluid lines but the album becomes even more enjoyable when listening closely to the rhythm section, which as stated, is as good as it gets for straight-ahead jazz.


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