Will Bernard has found his groove with jazz | AspenTimes.com

Will Bernard has found his groove with jazz

Contributed photoGuitarist Will Bernard, a product of the jazz program at Berkeley (Calif.) High School, performs Sept. 18 at Belly Up Aspen, opening for African guitarist Vieux Farka Toure.
Lourdes Delgado |

ASPEN In 1968, Californias Berkeley High School became racially integrated. To ease the transition and foster a genuine crossing of cultures, the school launched a jazz program, with the idea that students of various colors could meet in the band room to play the music of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, of Bill Evans and Chet Baker.While much of the original intent may have been social, the program has become a musical powerhouse. Among those to emerge from Berkeleys jazz curriculum, which is still going strong, are saxophonists Joshua Redman and David Murray, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, guitarist Charlie Hunter and pianist Benny Green all prominent professional musicians.Will Bernard spent just one year in the Berkeley High jazz program. A guitarist, Bernards tastes early in his high school years ran more toward rock. But in that one year, he studied harmony and piano, played in the jazz band led by teacher Phil Hardymon, and developed an interest in such jazz guitarists as Bill Frisell, Pat Martino, Jim Hall and Pat Metheny. Just as significantly, he cultivated relationships with his classmates, including saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, and bassist Chuck Sher, who has nearly cornered the market in music instruction books.In high school, I was hanging out with all the guys in the jazz program, said the 48-year-old Bernard by phone from New York, where he was awaiting a plane bound for Raleigh, N.C. That was an impetus for me to work harder, that peer pressure.Bernard took a side track after high school. At the University of California, Berkeley, he studied classical composition, and lost some of his interest in jazz.I got tired of guitar, said Bernard. I didnt know that was what I wanted to do. But Bill Frisell and [John] Scofield showed me how much was possible to do with a guitar.An even more direct hand steering him back to jazz belonged to another Berkeley High grad, Apfelbaum. After finishing college, Bernard reconnected with his former schoolmate, and joined the saxophonists Hieroglyphics Ensemble, an ambitious and influential big band. The affiliation brought Bernard back around to the jazz fold, and among his first projects was recording, with other Hieroglyphics members, with free-jazz icon Don Cherry.I just became more and more involved with things that were under the umbrella of things we call jazz, said Bernard. It led me to meeting people like Charlie Hunter, who was a fan of the group, and Lee Townsend, a well-known producer.Bernard hasnt veered too far from jazz since. He leads his Will Bernard Band in an opening set on Thursday, Sept. 18 at Belly Up, on a bill with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure. Bernards group a trio with drummer Eric Kalb, of the soul-rock band Deep Banana Blackout, and organist Wil Blades plays groove-based music roughly in the vein of Medeski, Martin & Wood, and the various bands of fellow guitarist Charlie Hunter.Improvising musicians can reach people on a broader level, and still be creative, said Bernard of the groove style, which has found a welcoming home at rock festivals, and on the circuit of jam-oriented clubs. Thats an attractive thing about it. People can dance to it; its feel-good music. Like they say, its good for the body and the soul.Bernard earned his most notable credentials in this particular corner of the jazz world as part of an uncommon combo called T.J. Kirk. The instrumentation was unusual: three guitarists Bernard, Hunter and John Schott plus a drummer, Scott Amendola. Odder still was the repertoire; over two albums in the mid-90s, the group limited itself to material written by Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The quartet won a devoted audience, and even attention in the more mainstream world, as their 1996 album If Four Was One earned a Grammy nomination.Since the T.J. Kirk years, Bernard has established himself ever deeper in groove jazz. He has appeared on two CDs by Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, including the recent Emphasis! (On Parenthesis), and has toured with Moores trio. (That group, with organist Robert Walter, was scheduled to perform two weeks ago at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, but the New Orleans-based Moore was otherwise occupied by Hurricane Gustav.) He also played on Walters Giving Up the Ghost.When Walter couldnt make a Stanton Moore Trio date at the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Bernard took the chance to further expand his circle. Walters spot was taken by keyboardist John Medeski. When Bernard went into the studio to make Blue Plate Special, the fifth CD under his own name, he enlisted Medeski. The chemistry was great. Johns a great person and a great musician, said Bernard, whose Blue Plate Special will be released Sept. 30 on the innovative jazz label, Palmetto. For a bassist, he went outside the usual groove circles and selected Andy Hess best known for his membership in the rock band Govt Mule, but also a versatile player who has recorded with John Scofield, David Byrne and Tina Turner. (Showing his outside-the-box thinking, Bernard originally contemplated using not a bassist, but a sousaphonist, New Orleans mainstay Kirk Joseph.)While established in the groove niche, Bernard makes plenty of opportunities to stretch out beyond it. He plays what he calls listening music in the acoustic trio Bernard-Emer-Lackner; that group is set to tour Europe next month. He is a member of Rockmovya, a California-based reggae outfit led by Leroy Horsemouth Wallace, whom Bernard identifies as one of the inventors of the reggae drumming style. Bernard has also toured with Wallaces regular band, Groundation, during the groups annual tribute to Bob Marley concerts.Thats still groove music, said Bernard.Last year, Bernard finally uprooted himself and left his native Berkeley to relocate in Brooklyn. I had been wanting to for a long time, he said. A lot of my good friends had moved here. I needed more stimulation. I needed to be around more musicians.But a piece of his heart is still in Berkeley, and with the uncommonly rigorous jazz program at Berkeley High.It doesnt seem like it should be so unusual. It would be great to have more programs like that, he said. This is one school that set the example, and it has for a long time.For a week in the early offseason better make than any season its a heck of a run coming up at Belly Up.The fun starts Sunday, Sept. 14 with Neko Case. The Vancouver-based alt-country singer launched her career with the Canadian collective the New Pornographers, but her talent has flourished with the solo albums Blacklisted and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and the live The Tigers Have Spoken, distinctive albums that combine a raw ethic with Cases potent voice.The Rev. Peytons Big Damn Band, which plays Monday, Sept. 15, may be short on personnel just three members, headed by singer-guitarist Peyton. But the trio is big in bodies check out Breezy on washboard and fierce vocals and on entertainment, as their version of country blues takes on punk-like energy.Burning Spear, one of the most enduring acts in reggae, returns on Wednesday, Sept. 17. Spear has a new CD, Jah Is Real, which, like his last record, Our Music, touches not on Rastafarianism a frequent subject but the perils of the music industry.Vieux Farka Toure, the headliner on Thursday, Sept. 18, is the son of the late Ali Farka Toure, an icon of Western African music. But perhaps more to the point for local audiences, the younger Toure, a guitarist and singer like his father, won widespread applause for his appearance last fall at the Wheeler Opera House, where he upstaged the more ballyhooed African band, Tinariwen.Buckethead returns with his guitar, his endlessly inventive licks, and his KFC bucket/hat on Friday, Sept. 19. Everlast, the one-man act who puts rap in a singer-songwriter context, and who performed the hit Put Your Lights On on Santanas Supernatural album, follows on Saturday, Sept. 20. The week ends Sunday, Sept. 21 with the Aspen debut of the Juno Reactor, an act that combines music with art, cinema and theater. Juno Reactor, centered around founder Ben Watkins, is best-known for creating the soundtrack to The Matrix.On a sadder note, what promised to be a highlight of the autumn has now been canceled. For the second time. The Tribute to James Brown, headed by former P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins, scheduled for Oct. 4, isnt happening. Dang.stewart@aspentimes.com

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