Catchy, Purist New Orleans-Tinged Funk and Soul From Will Bernard
The reason why you see so little guitar jazz on this page is that so many guitarists go into jazz as an excuse to noodle. On the other side of the equation, there are a few guitarists like Will Bernard, who ended up in jazz for the sake of additional opportunities to entertain, and have fun, and express a devious sense of humor. His latest album Freelance Subversives is a killer party record: you can fire it up at Bandcamp and dance to everything on it. As it goes along, it gets more psychedelic.
This time out Bernard breathes new life into a well-loved style: timeless, vintage 60s New Orleans funk. The album opens with Pusher Danish, a tightly clustering, catchy Meters-esque tune set to the punchy quasi-Motown beat of bassist Ben Zwerin and drummer Eric Kalb, Eric Finland’s swirly B3 organ and starry Wurlitzer overhead along with the bandleader’s lingering soul licks and purist Jim Hall riffage.
Back Channel comes across as a turbocharged Booker T tune, Finland’s torrents behind Bernard’s gritty, distorted, sustained lines and slinky wah-wah rhythm. Raffle has biting twin guitar leads, a terse, straight-ahead funk bassline from Jeff Hanley, plus sly, smoky tenor and baritone sax from special guest Skerik.
Blue Chenille is a vampy blend of Hollywood Hills boudoir soul with echoes of Pink Floyd and Angelo Badalamenti, Ben Stivers’ B3 organ and Rhodes overdubs twinkling beneath Bernard’s judicious slide work. How gunky is the album’s fifth track, Gunk? Bernard’s hazy layers of overdubs over a tongue-in-cheek, growling wah bassline from Zwerin could qualify; Jay Rodriguez reaches for the sky with a brief tenor sax break right before the end.
Driven by Moses Patrou’s clip-clop percussion, Clafunj is a psychedelic latin lowrider soul groove with tasty, crescendoing gospel organ from guest John Medeski. Bernard sticks with the latin soul for the album’s strutting title track, its hints of Shadows space-surf and Floydian galactic drift.
The lowrider groove won’t stop with Lifer; Stivers’ keening Farfisa and Bernard’s Beatles allusions add a devious Chicha Libre psychedelic cumbia feel. The album’s most psychedelic nugget, Garage A comes across as a mashup of Booker T and a classic Peruvian chicha group like Los Destellos taking a stab at a War tune.
The group move back toward New Orleans with Skillset, fueled by Finland’s torrential organ, Rodriguez’s sax and Bernard’s sagacious blues phrasing. They close with We the People, mashing up the Meters, Pink Floyd and the space side of the Ventures into a go-go theme. Bernard has played on an awful lot of good records over the years and this could be the best of all of them.