Berkeley guitarist Will Bernard can’t shake the funk
Although Mike Clark only spent a few years touring and recording with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, the oft-sampled drummer is indelibly linked to this 1970s funk fusion band. hard-swinging player in the mold of Philly Joe Jones, who propelled trumpeter Miles Davis’ 1950s quintet, doesn’t make much of a difference. He can’t shake the funk.
Berkeley-raised guitarist Will Bernard knows that feeling. It’s not just that he’s played a lot with Clark in various settings. Despite a resume that encompasses French klezmer and café music, silent film scores, direct jazz, and contemporary classical composition, Bernard is inextricably tied to a groove-centric sound. Honestly, it’s his fault, because his funk releases always deliver a memorable dose of fat. Splitting his time between Brooklyn and Berkeley for the past few years, he’s back in town for a pandemic-delayed tour celebrating his 2020 release from Ropeadope Records. Independent Subversivesstarting Thursday at Freight & Salvage.
“It’s the first all-funk oriented album I’ve done in a decade and I wanted to go all out and make a real funky record,” said Bernard, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1977 and earned a composition degree from . ‘UC Berkeley. “It’s funny because I released three albums on Posi-tone before that which are much more in the jazz realm, but people still associate me with funk.”
His upcoming dates will do nothing to dilute that impression. At Freight, he’s joined by a bicoastal team that includes East Bay electric bassist Victor Little and Berkeley percussionist Josh Jones, a close collaborator of Bernard for more than three decades, dating back to their days as partners in the rhythm section of Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics ensemble. From New York, he imports keyboardist Eric Finland and drummer Eric Kalb, “who was one of the first guys I met when I moved here,” Bernard said, referring to his move to Brooklyn. in 2007.
Best known as a founding member of funk rock band Deep Banana Blackout, he also toured and recorded with jazz guitar icon John Scofield and Berkeley-raised seven-string guitar ace Charlie Hunter. “We’re pretty close friends and I wanted to make a record with him since we’ve been playing together for so long,” Bernard said. “He’s a great funk drummer, and I wanted to tailor the music to what he does best.”
Bernard is also performing with the quintet Freelance Subversives on June 14 at Lytton Square in Palo Alto and July 16 in Santa Cruz Kuumbwa Jazz Center (with Adam Klipple taking the keyboard chair). After a two-year pandemic hiatus, Bernard has once again become a regular presence at Bay Area bandstands. In recent months he has performed at the California Jazz Conservatory with Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s Glamorous Escapes and at Bird & Beckett Books and Records in his long duo project with clarinetist Beth Custer.
And in a blast from the past, Bernard, John Schott and Scott Amendola, three-quarters of the Grammy-nominated band TJ Kirk of the 1990s, reunited at the Ivy Room in Damn Skippy! a bewitching quintet with bassist Todd Sickafoose and violinist Jenny Scheinman.
He doesn’t just cover a lot of musical ground in concert. His Freelance Subversives tour coincides with the release of his new album pond life, an extensive jazz trio session with bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Ches Smith (joined on a few tracks by saxophonist Tim Berne and keyboardist John Medeski). If there’s a common thread running through all the different projects, it’s Bernard’s dedication to composition.
Before he began to make a name for himself in the Bay Area music scene, he was a self-proclaimed “classic nerd” who studied with Andrew Imbrie at Cal. He put jazz and other musical styles on hold while delving into the harmonically dense thickets of contemporary music, even though he felt he “never quite fit in”. Instead of pursuing higher education, he began working in the region, supporting himself largely in a series of decidedly non-Top 40 alliances.
“I had a Persian/Armenian wedding concert which helped,” he said. “And I was in a klezmer band, Hotzeplotz, with Ben Goldberg, Dan Seamans, and first Kaila Flexer on violin and then Irene Sazer. Kenny Wollesen was the drummer and he was about 20 years old.
A passionate Francophile, he has also given wedding and coffee concerts with accordionist Odile Lavaut’s Baguette Quartette. “Those were my bread and butter gigs,” he said. As the Bay Area’s multifaceted acid jazz scene took off in the early 1990s, Bernard was in the thick of the action, playing in more than a dozen bands. But it wasn’t until Charlie Hunter assembled the unusual three-guitar and drum combo TJ Kirk that his name began to spread beyond the Bay Area. With a nickname assembled from the names of composers played by TJK – Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirk – the band took a break when Bernard slipped a tape to Berkeley producer Lee Townsend, which led to a deal with Warner Bros. has been looking to use his songwriting skills in different ways ever since.
Speaking of Yellowjackets, Will Bernard’s bandmate at Berkeley High, Peck Allmond, just released a new album on Eastlawn Records, Live at Yoshi’s in 1994, which features trumpeter and tenor saxophonist with the late great pianist Ed Kelly, bassist John Wiitala and another beloved and deceased musician, drummer Bud Spangler. Focusing on classic modern jazz tunes and standards, it’s a loose and energetic session that captures Kelly’s muscular accompaniment. They are joined by special guest tenor saxophonist Kenny Brooks on an energetic version of “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise”.
Venezuelan-born, Emeryville-based piano maestro Edward Simon, the current oldest member of the SFJAZZ collective, returns to Transport and Rescue June 10 with Steel House, his exquisite collective trio with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade (the band also play Kuumbwa on June 9). Simon just came out Live Solo, an unpublished document of his Piedmont Piano Company concert celebrating his 50th anniversary in 2019. In Steel House, he could not be better accompanied. Individually, over the past three decades, Colley and Blade have been two of the most sought after and recorded jazz musicians. Together they have an extraordinary relationship which also showed in Joshua Redman’s quartet, Still Dreaming.
A Berkeley resident since 1996, Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a longtime arts and culture journalist who has been contributing to Berkeleyside since 2011.