A FEW MINUTES WITH… Will Bernard
By J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
I don’t like “polite jazz” – that is, jazz that is designed to do nothing but “maintain tradition” and act as mildly interesting, historically correct, aural wallpaper. Therefore, it follows that I don’t like musicians who approach the genre as if it was a Faberge egg that will turn to dust if you even look at it funny from across a crowded room; I want jazz musicians with attitude – who kick down the music’s door and announce that they are the trouble we have all been waiting for.
Given those parameters, I like Will Bernard – a lot! The guitar sound he brings to the table is about as far from Wes Montgomery as Albany is from Alpha Centauri. It’s a package of incredible technical prowess wrapped in a mean & dirty noise that can sounds like a Corvette C7R going down the Mulsanne Straight at full chat. The only thing that’s nastier is the unhinged weather that greeted Bernard and his band – keyboardist Brian Charette and drummer Eric Kalb – when they played Parish Public House last year: It rained cats, dogs and aardvarks that night, accompanied by chain lightning and wind that was knocking down trees all over the Capital Region. In the words of the late Robin Williams, “That’s as close as I can explain.”
Although Bernard has been making music for over 25 years with heavy people like Don Cherry, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Charlie Hunter, my first experience with Bernard was on his 2013 Posi-tone release Just Like Downtown. Posi-tone doesn’t do mean ‘n’ nasty as a rule, so Bernard’s overall sound on that date was relatively restrained. That said, there was an undeniable attitude on Bernard’s covers of Led Zep’s “Dancing Days” and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Bali Ha’i” that made my head turn. “Hello,” I said to myself. “I think we’re going to have some fun with you!” The fun continued on Charette’s knockout 2015 Posi-tone disc Alphabet City, and it was at the Public House where Bernard turned me on to his self-released 2012 date Outdoor Living, which had all the blinding electricity Bernard, Charette and Kalb filled the Public House’s back space with while the storm raged outside.
Bernard is back on Posi-tone this year with Out & About, and along with Charette on keyboards, he brought reed wizard John Ellis, bassist Ben Allison and drummer Allison Miller (who just left her own mark on MASS MoCA’s Club B-10 with her own band Boom Tic Boom). That’s a killer combination in anyone’s language. And since 2013, “mean ‘n’ nasty” has definitely been added to Posi-tone’s lexicon, so along with a righteous set of all-original material, you also get plenty of that take-no-prisoners sound Bernard calls his own. Keep your fingers crossed for better weather when Bernard and his “Brooklyn band” return to Parish Public House this Friday night (June 3) – and even if the weather boils up again, put your big-biped pants on get down there if you want to see 21st-century jazz with more than a dash of funk and rock. It’ll make you dance, it’ll make you think, and it’ll make you wish you’d brought ear protection.
Bernard was good enough to take a few minutes and answer some questions about the new disc and some of the musical experiences he’s had along the way:
Q: When I look up your name in Wikipedia, the categories they list you under include “American jazz guitarists” and “American funk guitarists.” Do you think your playing style can be pigeonholed that easily?
A: Well, I have always had a problem with the idea of being pigeonholed, but I just go with it. That seems to be the way most people think. My own outlook on music is pretty different, though. I listen to everything and have a wide variety of musical interests. I have classical and jazz training, and I have played in so many varied situations I can’t go into it here.
Q: Certainly funk crops up a lot when I go through your discography. Among the people you’ve played with are Dr. Lonnie Smith and Stanton Moore, who definitely bring the funk to whatever they’re doing. Please tell me a little about working with these two kinda-sorta-disparate artists.
A: The first time I hear Stanton Moore play it was with the trio that became Garage a Trois with Charlie Hunter and Skerik. At that point I said to myself, “That’s a drummer I want to work with!” I really liked all the influences he put together. We started playing around 2002 or 2003, and started a super group called Frequinox. Out of that came the Stanton Moore Trio with Robert Walter on organ. I also did an album called Blue Plate Special with Stanton and John Medeski that started my association with John. It’s all in the family!
Dr. Lonnie Smith I first met when my group Motherbug opened for a super group that Lonnie played in with Idris Muhammad and Melvin Sparks. He looked very mysterious with his turban and his cane. He was a bit intimidating. Later, I found out that he is one of the nicest people you can meet. We have played together maybe 20 times, including a short tour with him and Stanton. After playing with Lonnie and studying his music, I have come to think of him as a mentor and teacher. I think he has a large group of musicians that feel that way about him, and he is very supportive. Some of the things I have learned from him are about simplicity, soulfulness and focus.
Q: One of the most interesting groups you’ve been associated with is TJ Kirk, which was dedicated to mashing up the music of Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. That sounds like an idea that pops up around 3am just before the bartender throws everybody out of the pub, but you guys definitely made that work. How did that group come about, and is there even the tiniest chance that band would come back together for one more project?
A: I think that project has run its course, but you never know! We did a reunion show in 2007, and it was quite a lot of work working up those crazy arrangements again. We really threw in everything including the kitchen sink, including three-part Bob Wills-style guitar arrangements and John Zorn-esque patchwork quilts.
Q: You’ve been recording as a leader since 1998, but you’ve continued to guest on recordings by (among other people) Wil Blades, Steven Bernstein, and Josh Roseman. What brings you back to other people’s projects?
A: Well, I like the variety, and I like being a sideman. It’s a lot less work than being a leader. I think most people have to do both. The latest “other people” project I am doing is John Medeski’s Mad Skillet; last year it was called Will Bernard’s Blue Plate Special. We swapped. We recorded a record almost a year ago, and it should be out with in a year or so. This group is John, myself, Kirk Joseph (Sousaphone player for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band) and (drummer/percussionist) Terence Higgins. I am super psyched about that project! Peter Apfelbaum’s Sparkler is a fun ongoing project. We are playing at the Newport Jazz Festival this year.
Q: Although I loved Just Like Downtown quite a bit, I think your latest release “Out & About” comes a lot closer to the harder sound I’ve heard on pre-Posi-tone releases like “Outdoor Living.” Is that a fair assessment?
A: Out and About, to me, is a sort of synthesis between my self-produced album Directions to My House (an album I did with Devin Hoff and Ches Smith) and Just Like Downtown. I wanted to explore a more free-ranging style that is mostly without a keyboard adding additional harmony. As in most of my CDs, there are a variety of styles and approaches within the same CD.
Q: In addition to your old friend Brian Charette, you also brought in people like Ben Allison, John Ellis, and Allison Miller. Are these people you’ve played with in the past?
A: I’ve known John Ellis from back in the day when he was playing with Charlie Hunter. That’s about 16 years, I think. He is one of my favorite tenor players in that he is super melodic, soulful and intellectually stimulating at the same time. He has strong ties to New Orleans, as I do. I’ve known Ben a long time, but only played with him in situations like Steven Bernstein’s MTO. I admire his work as a composer and bandleader. In fact, everyone on this record is in that category of bandleader/musician/composer. Allison Miller I first saw play with Dr. Lonnie, and she is just a great musician and great person. Brian and I have made four records together now and have travelled around Europe together. He is one of the best organists on the scene.
Q: I recently interviewed Allison Miller, and she said she was really surprised how fast the recording went for “Out & About.” Do you like to work fast in the studio, or was that just how this session shook out?
A: It’s really about the economics. I would prefer to spend a whole year working on a record if I could! We did this record with one rehearsal and one recording session. In this case, it was somewhat difficult because I was still finishing the songs and the charts the night before the recording session, and still had some kinks to work out in terms of the form of the tunes and the feel of the tunes.
Q: Brian and Eric Kalb make up of your “Brooklyn band,” which will be appearing with you at Parish Public House. But you’ve also got a “San Francisco band.” What are the differences between the two? Also, as someone who’s also lived in the NY area and the Bay Area, what do you like and dislike about those cities?
A: Well, these days I have a fairly large pool of musicians that I play with. They can be combined and recombined in different ways. In New York there is an incredible number of fantastic musicians available. With Brian and Eric Kalb, it’s a particular thing when the three of us get together, and it works well. I also play with these guys in different groups depending on who is around at any given time. That’s one of the great things about New York: There is always someone amazing to play with that you can work well with depending on the situation. In the Bay Area, it’s a much smaller pool of musicians and more difficult to find people who have similar influences and interests. I have a small group of people I play with out there regularly. I do love the Bay Area, it’s one of my favorite places in the world, and I have greater recognition there than anywhere else.