By Dee Dee McNeil
July 1, 2021
Brian Bromberg’s solo career began in 1986, on the BlackHawk Label, when he recorded and released, “A New Day” to critical acclaim. Unapologetically, Brian was drawn to the bass by accident years before this first album was released. Let me explain.
His father, Howard Bromberg, was a prominent drummer in Tucson, Arizona, where baby Brian was born and raised. Brian’s dad taught both Brian and his brother to play the drums. I bet the Bromberg house was raucous with rhythm and music. I asked Brian, how his mom handled a house full of drummers.
“Oh man, there was a lot of noise and music in our house, but my mom loved it. My dad was a jazz drummer and my older brother played drums and so did I. After I fell in love with the bass, I practiced day and night. It was a wonderful creative time,” Brian told me.
At thirteen, a youthful and talented Brian Bromberg was already getting gig calls to play his drums. In elementary and junior high school, teenaged Brian also became attached to the cello. One day, the orchestra director at Mansfield Jr. High in Tucson was afraid the tenacious and gifted drummer was going to saw the school cello in half. So, the music teacher diverted Brian Bromberg to the acoustic bass instrument. With Brian’s rhythmic sense and early mastery of the trap drums, he was immediately intrigued by the bass. After all, it was an important part of any rhythm section, but it could also sing melodies and provide harmony. Young Bromberg put down his sticks, laid aside the cello and happily picked up the gigantic double bass. From age fourteen to eighteen, he was fanatical about practicing and mastering his new-found, bass instrument.
While attending high school, Brian was also taking music classes at the University of Arizona. Clearly, he was intent on becoming a professional musician. His family supported his dream. While still in high school, Brian was playing in the university orchestra, in the lab band and he found himself drawn to performances with their jazz combo. After all, he grew up under the tutelage of a jazz drummer. At the Bromberg home, there was always jazz playing and Brian was drawn to both jazz and classical music.
“Well – oddly enough I always loved jazz. Even as a teenager, I was into jazz and listened to jazz. At first, I was a purist. I was into acoustic jazz and classical. I was playing in the orchestra. I didn’t listen to any American Pop music. Although, with two sisters and a brother, all older than me, I heard the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Laura Nyro, Carole King, and James Taylor while growing up. But for me, at fourteen and fifteen, I was really into music by Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Don Ellis. I listened to all the big band stuff and to Sarah Vaughan. I was a huge fan of Sarah Vaughan; then Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Stan Getz, who I ended up playing with. Not so usual for a teenager in Tucson, Arizona,” Brian quipped.
When Bill Evans came to Tucson, touring, the genius pianist was using Marc Johnson as his bass player. Somehow, Marc heard young Brian Bromberg playing his bass. He was memorably impressed. Not long after, Stan Getz happened to mention to Marc Johnson that he was looking for a young bass player to take on the road with him and to mentor. Marc immediately flashed back to Tucson and young Brian. The call was made and in 1979, when the young man was a mere nineteen years old, Brian Bromberg joined the great Stan Getz Quintet for a world-wind tour.
“Oh God, Stan taught me more about life than anything you can imagine. The music was great, but I learned more about humanity, because I got to travel the world. I saw the world and different cultures. But, dealing with Stan Getz; that was an interesting experience because of his mental state, which was usually altered most of the time. Being a teenager, a normal kid from Tucson, Arizona, who grew up in a very normal lifestyle, to all of a sudden be hanging out with somebody like Stan was quite an experience. I mean, he used to be a heroin addict, a cocaine addict, he smoked pot constantly. He was a heavy drinker. it was an eye-opening experience, to all of a sudden, be hanging out with someone like that. Stan taught me a lot about humanity and, in some instances, about who I did not want to become. But the music was amazing. He was such a brilliant musician! So, that was incredible. He was flawless, really, truly an iconic musician,” Brian told me.
Below is a concert filmed in Litha, part of the North Sea Jazz Festival in July 1980 featuring then 20-year-old Bromberg on bass, Stan Getz (soprano and tenor sax), Chuck Loeb (guitar), Mitch Forman (piano), Brian Bromberg (bass) and Mike Hyman (drums).
In 1986, Brian Bromberg relocated to Southern California. I asked him how that happened.
“Well, the only reason I came here was because of Phil Upchurch. He was doing a record for Japan and somebody from the Japanese label said you need to get Brian Bromberg on bass. Phil said; Brian who? I was living in Arizona at the time. For whatever reason, the band knew who I was and knew my playing. So, somebody told Phil; you have to have Brian Bromberg on this record. Consequently, I got the call, came to L.A. and I did the record. Then, I went back to Tucson. A few weeks later, Phil calls me up and he said, man, you were great. Look, if I got some gigs, would you come out here and work. I said sure. So, he calls me back with enough local gigs to relocate to Los Angeles. Back in those days, there were plenty of gigs. Phil had months of gigs booked in advance. I wasn’t working that much in Tucson. So, that’s how I moved to L.A.,” Brian told me.
I asked him about the times he toured with Eddie Harris and inquired about what he got out of that relationship?
“Oh wow, he was wild. He was really fun to hang with and fun to play with. Eddie was great and I say this with love and respect; he was just out of his mind in a good way. His sense of humor and spark and energy; oh, he was great. It was really fun playing with him, because he was just crazy and you never knew what he was going to do. … He was really creative. He played with all these gadgets and did things no one had done before; blew his saxophone through those things. I had a lot of respect for Eddie Harris. In one way he had a lot of fame and success. In another way, he deserved more acknowledgement for his contribution to technology and for pushing the envelope in regards to what you can and can’t do. I think he was a really a cool blend between the funky, contemporary stuff and the real straight-ahead stuff. He could do both. I mean, when you think of “Swiss Movement” that record, and “Compared to What.” Man he was just amazing. It was so much fun to play with the cats who actually created those historic recordings,” Brian shared his memory of working with the great Eddie Harris.
This writer thinks Brian Bromberg, himself, is a genius in his own right. Like Eddie Harris, Brian can play many styles of music and he plays them all with excellence. This is exemplified in the long list of recordings he has made as a bandleader performing both smooth jazz and traditional, straight-ahead jazz. After his initial release of “A New Day” he followed up as part of the “L.A. Jazz Quintet” album featuring guitar icon, Phil Upchurch, Brandon Fields, Bobby Lyle, and one of the greatest drummers in the world, Harvey Mason. In the same year of 1986, Bromberg released his album, “Basses Loaded.” In 1988, Brian recorded “Magic Rain” for Intima Records, followed by “BASSically Speaking” on the same label in 1989. Music just kept pouring out of him.
One thing that impresses me greatly about Brian Bromberg’s playing is how he plays his bass like a drummer would, laying down repetitive and creative licks that are full of rhythm and spunk. I heard it a lot on his acoustic jazz album, “Dust to Dessert” and the “It’s About Time” album is one of my favorites. In 1990, he reached back to his acoustic roots, embracing a traditional jazz path. He walked up that road successfully with Doug Webb and Ernie Watts on saxophones, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Mike Garson, dramatic and emotional on piano and Mitch Forman bringing his own spice and brilliance to the eighty-eight keys on some tracks. Also, Brian’s brother, Dave Bromberg competently manned the drums. You can clearly hear Bromberg’s style and amazing technique on every recording.
Even in a big band setting, Brian Bromberg’s bass is spotlighted like a police helicopter lighting up half a block from above.
Brain Bromberg’s Unapologetically Funky Big Bombastic Band! Minneapolis 1987 was another smash hit album.
The other creative discovery Brian made in his career is the mastery of the piccolo bass.
“Well, I think it started happening when I began playing bass after playing drums. I didn’t realize that I had that much melody in me. When I started playing bass, I realized I had this melodic side to me. I started messing around with changing the tuning of my bass and one day, I tuned the strings an octave higher than my regular bass. I started playing all this stuff and I said, Holy Mackerel. I could play all these notes in the lower register and it sounds like music and didn’t sound like mud. You know, when you play bass chords down low, they sound kind of muddy. All of a sudden, I’m hearing music. I’m not hearing bass playing. And it rewired me. For whatever reason, I started playing it more and more. I realized I have all this melodic stuff inside of me and it came out and excited me. What the piccolo bass did for me was allow me to sing. I was playing melodies and telling stories. I had no idea all this stuff inside of me even existed. It helped me communicate with music in that register. It was perhaps because it was higher and tuned like a guitar. So, all of a sudden it totally changed my playing, my phrasing and my melodic thought. I put my fingers in the same place as a regular bass, but it just sounds different. It became a voice of mine. It’s rewarding. People don’t know if I’m a bass player or a guitar player. They don’t know what I am, but that’s ok. It made me grow into the music. It made me better. It forced me to be better. I love it. I get to play music, not just the bass. It’s fun, inspirational and it’s cool that a lot more guys are playing with it now. It’s rewarding to see that. It shows me that so many of the limitations we have are our own. I try not to be limited by my instrument. The instrument challenges me. So many songs I’ve written, I’ve written on the piccolo bass,” Brain explained.
You clearly hear the piccolo bass on Bromberg’s latest project, “A Little Driving Music” released in 2021. It was produced virtually, using technology to synchronize the musicians together during the quarantined, pandemic year of 2020. This album is back to his smooth jazz, funky style. However, you always here traditional or straight-ahead jazz mixed into Brian Bromberg’s arrangements. His composition “Froggy’s” is smoking hot! Joel Taylor pounds this track forward with his powerhouse drums and Bromberg’s bass line locks relentlessly into the groove. They supply a rhythm track that bounces like a trampoline for Everette Harp to showcase his dancing saxophone. Tom Zink is on every track of this new CD, adding keyboards that fatten the arrangements.
Always pushing the boundaries of his creativity, Brian Bromberg began to design basses. He wanted something comfortable to hold, ergonomically shaped, with high quality and a resonating tone. The result is the Brian Bromberg Signature Series, a B24 four-string and B25 five-string that revolutionized Carvin’s bass guitars including RJ2 radiused alnico single-coil pickups for amazing tone.
His next project was starting a radio show that exclusively introduced bass players to his listening audience. Appearing on John Liebman’s “For Bass Players Only” show, he talked about his show.
“It was the first Internet radio station for bass players in the world. It exceeded my expectations in many ways. We had listeners in 170 countries and it was incredible. The reason I started the station was because I’ve always had a record deal for thirty years and I’ve sold hundred of thousands of records. That’s a blessing. I had a lot of luck as a bass player. I wanted to give other bass players a platform to be heard. Most of the record labels are gone and there are so many bass players out there worthy to be heard. So, I created “Bass on the Broadband.” Where it didn’t exceed my expectations is that we were on the air almost five years and we got hardly any industry support. A few companies believed in us and gave us a shot. But the Industry let us down with no willingness to support the global bass community. None of the magazines supported us. There are hundreds of companies that make bass equipment who had no interest in taking out ads on our show. If you think about it, the people listening to our show were mostly bass players. Bass players buy strings, straps, instruments, cases, all that stuff. They buy cars to get to gigs. They get financed by Wells Fargo, just like I did. The industry didn’t understand the power of a global program aimed directly at consumers who buy their stuff. I had overhead. On a radio station you have to pay BMI, ASCAP, SESAC performance rights organizations and you’re constantly putting money out. I would have liked to see more industry support. Consequently, I had to shut it down.”
All the while, Bromberg kept touring, kept recording and has released more than twenty-seven albums as a leader, had five number one songs on the Billboard charts and has produced or written number one songs for other artists.
“One of those artists was Jeff Kashiwa who was with the The Rippingtons. We cut a thing called “Hyde Park” and it was the longest running #1 song in the smooth jazz category. I produced a bunch of people over the years,” Brian told me.
He has both produced, recorded and/or performed with too many people to list here, but this partial list speaks for itself, especially spotlighting his diversity: Carmen McRae, Herbie Hancock, Amy Grant, Andrea Bocelli, Elvin Jones, Peter White, Joshua Redman, George Duke, Barry Harris, Ernie Watts, Freddie Hubbard, Gerald Albright, George Benson, Bob James, Jeff Lorber and the list goes on and on.
Brian Bromberg’s current release is another jewel in his musical crown. Featuring special guests like Charlie Bisharat, Lenny Castro, Nick Colionne, Tower of Power’s Jerry Cortez, Mitch Forman, Everette Harp, Dave Koz and Marion Meadows, along with a super solid rhythm section and several other top name musicians who pop in to add their imaginative creativity. This is music you can pop into your car CD player, or pull up on your phone and head to the open highway. No matter what Brian Bromberg is playing, he puts the pedal to the metal and creates “A Little Driving Music” for our listening pleasure. Enjoy!