The Saratogian
Jazz Fest: Electric guitarist Chris Bergson plays jazz and the blues

Published: June 26, 2013
By Don Wilcock

Audiences will hear as much blues as they will jazz when Chris Bergson plays the gazebo stage Sunday afternoon at the Freihoferís Jazz Festival.

By American standards, Bergson is a "back-door man", a musician with a jazz background who moves into blues. Bergson is a white electric guitarist from New York City who plays elegant B.B. King and Elmore James licks on his latest album, "Imitate the Sun". He sings at times like Dr. John without the New Orleans accent and at other times like Randy Newman.

Yeah, this guy's a hybrid.

It was Howlin' Wolf's guitarist, the late Hubert Sumlin, who got him into singing.

"The last time I saw him," Bergson said, "he sat me down and said, "Listen, son, you have a gift here with your singing. There are a lot of guitar players out there. There are not a lot of good singers out there, and you have a gift."

Bergson started out as a writing student at Vassar College and bounced over to the Oberlin Conservatory for a year, then transferred to Manhattan School of Music. He ended up hosting a Monday night gig at a little lounge in Hell's Kitchen with an unknown artist named Norah Jones.

"We did these little gigs, and she was really shy," Bergson said of Jones. "Sometimes I had to tell her, "Don't forget to introduce yourself. Don't forget to introduce the band. She would open her mouth and sing her ass off, but she was really shy."

Bergson's saxophone player, Jay Collins, had a hand in introducing the guitarist to The Band's founding member, Levon Helm. Collins was dating Levon's daughter, Amy, and she suggested Bergson record his "Fall Changes" album at her dad's barn in Woodstock.

"Amy sang on a couple of cuts on that record, and then shortly after that I ended up getting a call from Levon to come on up and play some "Midnight Rambles" with him," Bergson recalled. This was in 2006.

"He needed a guitar sub," he continued, elaborating. "There were times when Jimmy Vivino and Larry Campbell couldn't make it. So I ended up doing a number of gigs with Levon. Sometimes I was the only guitar, and then sometimes with Jimmy Vivino and Larry. So we [sic] learned a lot playing in that band."

Even though Bergson keeps a low profile in the American blues community, his "Fall Changes" LP was named the No. 1 blues album of the year and his most recent album, "Imitate the Sun", No. 2 by Mojo magazine, England's answer to Rolling Stone.

The Brits are less concerned about separating blues and jazz than Americans are.

"(The genres) haven't always been as separate as they are now," Bergson said. "Fred Below, for instance, was an out-of-work jazz drummer when he started playing with Muddy Waters and Little Walter."

Bergson is in awe of both Hubert Sumlin and Levon Helm.

"(Hubert) was just going for it, right now in this moment, and that was real inspiring - such a beautiful spirit. He seemed still really excited to be playing. When I played with him, it was the last few years of his life," Bergson said. "Similar to Levon, he had an almost childlike excitement to be playing music, a real joy. I think the last concert I played with him he was hooked up to an oxygen tank playing his ass off. That was really inspiring and moving."

You can hear Sumlin's influence in Bergson's playing. And he sounds like he's channeling Helm in some of his vocals.

"I learned how to play a shuffle from Levon. Some drummers have just one shuffle they play. It seemed like Levon every time; the way he really always played the song, there were no frills, no b.s.," Bergson said. "He was just so paired down. Every note was just so right and so right in there. His groove was just so deep, so incredible. That was a really incredible experience. I miss him a lot."

Electric guitarist Chris Bergson will perform on Saratoga Performing Arts Center's gazebo stage at 5:25 p.m. Sunday.