Chuck Bernstein: Contenda

Most of Delta Berimbau Blues trends toward the sounds of the delta blues as played by Chuck Bernstein on the Brazilian one-stringed instrument the berimbau. (To read more about the berimbau, see my review of Bernstein's "Kindred Spirits.") Ted Gioia, jazz.com's resident delta blues expert and author of the book Delta Blues, has favorably reviewed the album's title cut, so I'll defer to him as to how close Bernstein's jazz- and folk-influenced blues hew to the tradition or whether that even matters. But in playing with a bow and stone, Bernstein has certainly found another good use for this unusual instrument.

"Contenda" is the CD's most obvious jazz tune. Bernstein's berimbau serves as bassline and rhythm backing. Acoustic guitarist Ian Faquini provides some beautiful accompanying chords and slowly played arpeggios. But the star of this cut is the melody itself and how tenor saxophonist Robert Kyle plays it. A lovely jazz ballad performed with restraint and taste, this is one more reason you should check out Bernstein's fine album.

November 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chuck Bernstein: Kindred Spirits

The Berimbau is a one-stringed instrument from Bahia, which is a state in Brazil. Drummer Chuck Bernstein first heard the instrument on a 1965 Sergio Mendes record. About a decade later he saw drummer Shelly Manne bring the strange-looking instrument on stage in San Francisco. Manne joked about its appearance, then played the thing with a small stone and a bow. The instrument looks like a home-fashioned bow with a string attached that stretches across a dried-out gourd. It sounds like a low-register Jew's harp. After Manne's performance, Bernstein was hooked. Over the years Bernstein intermittently studied the instrument.

Delta Berimbau Blues is a collection of jazz-tinged blues and folk music. Bernstein uses the berimbau for its percussive and mood-setting qualities. But there is also much improvisation in the music, which gives it a jazz vibe. Bernstein's choice to use this Brazilian instrument in a delta blues mode is less interesting than his actual use. Once you have chosen the tool, you still have to do the work. After hearing the berimbau in the hands of Bernstein, you might well think that the instrument emanated from Mississippi! It fits right in. But that has as much to do with Bernstein as it does his implement.

"Kindred Spirits," a duet with drummer George Marsh, is one piece on the record that is all about rhythm and texture. There is no time spent on melody. Instead the musicians explore a delta blues sound that was never heard in the day. The ancient-sounding berimbau is presented in tandem and counterpoint to a modern trap set. Bernstein finds his groove as Marsh adds accents on his cymbals and occasional snare rolls. This is the kind of music you hear in those dark Deep South mystery movies just after someone has been murdered and they start searching the swamps in one of those flat wooden boats for a missing body, hoping the crocs ain't got to 'em first. In this case, Bernstein and Marsh are the killers.

November 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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