As one of the three guitarists of the fleeting, all-star T.J. Kirk quartet in the mid-90s, Will Bernard’s career since then hadn’t generated the buzz that his former Kirk colleague Charlie Hunter does, but that doesn’t mean he’s been any less productive or creative. True, he makes records somewhat less infrequently (that’s beginning to change, now) but he’s always made the most of those opportunities and Motherbug, Blue Plate Special and Party Hats are acid jazz celebrations that are every bit as solid and perhaps even more consistently so than Hunter’s records. He’s spent time recording and performing with Dr. John, Stanton Moore, John Medeski, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Zigaboo Modeliste, Booker T., Bernie Worrell, Robert Walter and a host of bands that specialize from reggae to hip hop. We put on ear on an adventurous record he made under the collective Bernard Emer Lackner Ferber a few years back and last year, Bernard participated in Tom Waits’ widely lauded Bad As Me disc.
The records Bernard leads tend to be performed by small combos—either trio or quartet—and are groove oriented. The newest one Outdoor Living follows along in that same pattern. Carrying over Bay Area B3 specialist Wil Blades from the Grammy nominated Party Hats and introducing New Orleans’ Simon Lott on drums, Bernard shifted from the star power (Moore, Medeski) found on Blue Plate Special to the symmetry of recording with his road band on Living.
Most of the down-home, no-bullshit grooves of Outdoor Living could nestle comfortably aside of the Meters’ historic Josie sides and except for the absence of George Porter’s bass, most folks wouldn’t know it comes from a completely different time with a completely different lineup. Just look back to where I rattled off the names with whom Bernard has been associated, and you begin to see a pattern of musicians either from the Meters’ Big Easy environs, or closely identified with it. No doubt their musical personalities rubbed off nicely on him.
Being that kind of record, the songs are pretty much defined by the beats: “Nature Walk” (video above) and “Katskan” are Crescent City romps; “Morgan Dance” brandishes a big, 60s backbeat, “Implitude” rocks a little harder and “6B” is organic (in both senses of the word) hip-hop. Every so often, the band slows down as it does for the swampy blues of “Nooksack,” where Bernard’s underrated slide technique gets a hearing and on the psychedelic slow burner “Point Blank,” the band just lets the soulful mood permeate the song. The multi-mode “Roaming Charges” is a vehicle for Bernard’s knack for inserting his inventive bent into grooves, and on “Squeaky Chug Chug” Blades cuts loose on a slowly simmering organ lead that Bernard follows up with an undeniable, funk-laden solo. “Morgan Deux” is another highlight reel for the leader, his rhythm-aware style splitting the difference between Grant Green and Leo Nocentelli.
What’s best about Outdoor Living is the same thing that makes all Will Bernard records likeable: great to groove to, and equally great, interesting melodies to delve into. This one feels more road tested, though, and if you like the record, you’re sure to like the live performances (check out Bernard’s upcoming gigs here).
Outdoor Living makes its debut on March 20, courtesy of Dreck To Disk Records. Visit Will Bernard’s website.