Will Bernard is the rare musician who can write about what he does with as much articulacy as he plays. Now, that could be taken two ways, but Bernard is a guitar polymath who seems to have just as much fun in the worlds of straight-ahead jazz, Booker T style soul grooves, psychedelia, and slinky, funky organ lounge sounds. His latest album Ancient Grains – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – pushes the envelope as far as that last category is concerned. It was tempting just to plagiarize his descriptions of the tracks, but that would be cheating. This album is a party in a box. Here we go!
Bernard calls the opening number, Dry Land Tourist, a cruising song. That’s an interesting way to look at it. Unless you listen closely from the beginning, it’s hard to find the beat – although drummer Donald Edwards’ rhythm is rock-steady, it’s almost like everything is on the “one.” Bernard and organist Sam Yahel play sparely and incisively: this is dance music.
Bernard is very good with titles. To what extent does the album’s title track reflect the nutritional value of heirloom grains like, say, tef or hominy? It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this tightly swinging quasi-shuffle is soul food, although bacon and home fries come to mind more than yemesir wat. But maybe that’s just a cultural association, considering that this style that originated in the south and midwest.
The trio play Five Finger Discount – a triumphantly percolating salute to the joy of thievery – with a shuffling 5/4 beat. Then they hit a lithe, brisk pulse in Pleasure Seekers, a California Highway 1 tableau. The George Benson that Bernard alludes to here is the young, hungry, edgy version; Edwards mists up the car windows with his solo.
With the fond, gospel-tinged, panoramic ballad Stone Valley, Bernard sends a shout-out to his dad, who built the family home in what was then very rural California. The guitarist calls Trilobite a ” mood piece for a rainy carnival day.” which nails the contrast between the jaunty Brazilian beat and the moody, resonant changes.
The lone cover here is a Monk tune, Boo Boo’s Birthday, Bernard giving the melody line some extra bite, Yahel having fun shifting the rhythm over Edwards’ practically defiant forward drive. Likewise, there’s a hard swing to Mazurka Tree, distantly inspired by Chopin, whose Slavic dances Bernard would play on piano in his younger days.
Edwards gets to volley and chew the scenery in Temescal, a lickety-split salute to Bernard’s old Bay Area stomping ground. Ironically for a party album, the most gripping track is the gorgeously drifting Right As Rain, awash in cumulo-nimbus organ and Bernard’s spare, sitar-like slide guitar. The group close the record with Wake Up Call. “This song doesn’t sound difficult but it requires a certain alertness to play it,” Bernard confides. Actually…yeah, the syncopation in this part-boogaloo, part brooding reggae-inflected tune is tricky, but the trio keep the slinky groove rolling close to the ground.