The Artistry of Jay Berliner

Continuing “The Artistry Of…” series, we come to a classical guitar master with a long career starting in the early 1960s, who’s work graced many great albums since then. Jay Berliner is one of those truly versatile musicians who can always provide a great part to lift the level of a song. His long list of recording sessions,hundreds of them, includes work with artists in genres including classical, jazz, folk, funk, singer/songwriter, free improvisation, film scores, easy listening, rock, cabaret, klezmer, and the list goes on and on. Here is a collection of some of his finest work during the first twenty years of his career.

jay berliner1

Jay Berliner’s earliest recordings were with Harry Belafonte in the early 1960s, a time when he was part of the successful singer’s recording and touring band. The Many Moods of Belafonte from 1962 and Streets I Have Walked from 1963 are two albums of note featuring Jay Berliner among other guitar players.

In 1963 Berliner participated in an album on the Blue Note jazz label, the relatively unknown African High Life, by Solomon Ilori and His Afro-Drum Ensemble. The Nigerian drummer moved to New York City in 1958 and worked with Harry Belafonte, and this was his debut album. The tune Yaba E (Farewell) shows an interesting side of Berliner, playing African highlife licks on electric guitar.

Solomon Ilori and His Afro-Drum Ensemble African High Life

1963 also saw one of Berliner’s best recorded guitar performances, with no less than jazz legend Charles Mingus on one of his most ambitious and celebrated albums. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady was recorded in January of 1963 for the Impulse label and Mingus wanted it to be a single continuous composition written as a ballet. An acclaimed album in the history of jazz, it features wonderful group ensemble interplays by eleven musicians. Berliner’s shining moment on the album comes in at 1:40 into the side-long Trio and Group Dancers, playing an exquisite solo on Spanish guitar. Mingus said that the use of the Spanish guitar was meant to mirror the period of the Spanish Inquisition and El Greco’s mood of oppressive poverty and death.

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Like many other studio musicians, one of Jay Berliner’s most attractive assets to folks who hire him for their projects is his ability to play what the session calls for. In 1965 painter, illustrator and filmmaker Ed Emshwiller made a short film about George Dumpson, a handy man and an assembler of found objects. The music for the film, called George Dumpson’s Place, is performed by Berliner and bassist Bill Lee (father of director Spike to whom he wrote the soundtracks to She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing and Mo Better Blues). The bass and guitar duets are featured throughout the film.

In 1967 Berliner participated in the recording of Laue Nyro’s debut album More Than a New Discovery. Arranger Herb Bernstein brought some of New York’ finest studio musicians to the sessions. Guitar was never a prominent instrument in Nyro’s repertoire, but here is a nice example of providing a jazzy background to one of her lesser known tunes, Billy’s Blues.

laura nyro more than a new discovery

1968 brings us to perhaps the best known, and certainly the most celebrated recording that Jay Berliner has been associated with. That year Van Morrison was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, playing coffeehouses with an acoustic band. After a lengthy feud with Bang Records that prevented him from recording new material, he was finally able to sign a contract with Warner Bros. He went into the studio with an amazing group of jazz musicians including Richard Davis (Eric Dolphy) on bass, Connie Kay (Modern Jazz Quartet) on drums and our Jay Berliner on classical and steel-string acoustic guitars. Morrison brought the songs he played in his acoustic live sets and gave the musicians little, if any, instructions. Berliner remembers: “What stood out in my mind was the fact that he allowed us to stretch out. We were used to playing to charts, but Van just played us the songs on his guitar and then told us to go ahead and play exactly what we felt. I played a lot of classical guitar on those sessions and it was very unusual to play classical guitar in that context.” With such a talent pool Morrison could not be more satisfied: “The songs came together very well in the studio. Some of the tracks were first takes. But the musicians were really together. Those type of guys play what you’re gonna do before you do it, that’s how good they are”. The resulting album was Astral Weeks, a mainstay near the top of any respected “Greatest albums of all time” music poll.

One of Jay Berliner’s finest performances on this excellent album is on Beside You, a song that starts with a great introduction by Berliner on classical guitar. You can clearly feel that the gifted guitar player is improvising here, following Morrison’s singing. Morrison described it as “the kind of song that you’d sing to a kid or somebody that you love. It’s basically a love song. It’s just a song about being spiritually beside somebody.”

Astral Weeks

We skip to 1972 and another great acoustic guitar part on White Rabbit, George Benson’s album for CTI records. Since its inception by Creed Taylor in 1967, the label tried to bring jazz to mass audiences by featuring jazz-tinged covers to well-known songs that young audiences can relate to. On this album the title track gets an interesting funky instrumental treatment with George Benson and his signature electric guitar sound, and a host of jazz stars including Ron Carter on bass, Herbie Hancock on electric piano and Billy Cobham on drums. The Spanish-style opening of the track gets a fine acoustic guitar work-out by Berliner.

george Benson white rabbit

1973 was a good year for Berliner, with many stellar recording performances. He worked again with Harry Belafonte on the album Play Me. Berliner has a fine solo on the song Empty Chairs, a cover of a song by Don McLean, who described it as the best cover of any of his songs.

Two more albums for CTI records followed that year, the first by Brazilian keyboardist Eumir Deodato. The album is Prelude, with the signature track Also Sprach Zarathustra, an arrangement of the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That track won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance and was CTI’s biggest success. On that album Berliner gets a solo spot on the track Spirit of Summer. You can hear that solo starting at 2:20 into the mellow track.

Deodato Prelude

The same rhythm section that worked on White Rabbit returned to the studio for Sunflower, an album by Milt Jackson, who took a different approach here than the one we usually know him for as a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The album includes orchestral arrangements by Don Sebesky, who worked on many CTI albums. Jay Berliner certainly has a way with opening tracks with a beautiful classic guitar solos. Here is another great one, this time on For Someone I love, a Milt Jackson composition.

Jay Berliner3

We mentioned Jay Berliner’s versatility, and the following track from 1973 is a good example. How about accompanying a Kurt Weill cabaret tune on a banjo? No problem. The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble with conductor Arthur Weisberg released an album with works by Kurt Weill and Darius Milhaud for the Elektra Nonesuch label. It included an orchestral arrangement of a Suite from The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill. One of the tunes, Die Ballade Vom Angenehmen eben (The Ballad of the Easy Life), gets a simple yet effective banjo strumming from the guitar master.

Jay Berliner2

Unlike many studio musicians who could not find a way to get with the times and find work with new artists and styles, Jay Berliner continued his studio work well into the following decades. His versatility and fine craftsmanship on acoustic and classical guitar have always been in demand. I will conclude this article with one of my favorite contributions by Berliner. In 1981 Carly Simon released the album Torch, recording her take on jazz standards and torch songs. Jazz and studio greats of the time such as Michael Brecker, Phil Woods and David Sanborn can all be found here. The song I love the most on the album is a trio performance by Carly Simon, Jay Berliner and Mike Mainieri on piano and marimba. The song is What Shall We Do with the Child, with lyrics by Nicholas Holmes and music by Kate Horsey. The poignant lyrics about a love child, the result of a love affair long dead, could not get a better interpretation than Carly Simon’s vocals and Jay Berliner’s guitar.

carly simon torch


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