Will Bernard

“I just got back from a fun gig playing traditional French café music with the Baguette Quartette at the Ratatouille film premier,” says Will Bernard with a slight smile. The soft-spoken, hard-bopping guitarist is best known as a jazzman, but he’s a versatile cat who is at home playing everything from classical to funk—all with an impeccable rhythmic sensibility. Bernard’s new CD, Party Hats [Palmetto], is a smoking groove-jazz affair representing his energetic dance-club show embellished with punchy horn and percussion parts.
Publish date:
Updated on

Bernard’s expansive skills are rooted in extensive training. Like his friend Charlie Hunter, he studied under acclaimed educator Peter Apfelbaum while attending the same Berkeley High School music program that produced sax star Joshua Redman and former Guitar Player editor Joe Gore. Bernard earned his first national exposure in Apfelbaum’s world-jazz Hieroglyphics Ensemble, and the two have continued to work on various projects together—including Party Hats. Bernard also earned a classical music degree from the University of California at Berkeley.
Bernard has always been up for a challenge—and a laugh. He, Hunter, and third guitarist John Schott paid homage to the music of James Brown, Thelonious Monk, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk as members of James T. Kirk (the name was changed to T.J. Kirk when legal issues ensued over use of the Star Trek captain’s name). Warner Brothers signed the band at the advent of the early-’90s acid jazz craze, and its second CD, If Four Was One, was nominated for a Grammy award. Bernard parlayed that success into a solo deal that yielded 1998’s adventurous Medicine Hat, as well as two self-released efforts that preceded Party Hats.

How do you describe the vibe of the new record?
I call it soul-jazz to differentiate it from fusion or acid-jazz, because there are no hectic tempos or added electronics. Also, my guitar tone has definitely gone in a cleaner direction that’s more towards Grant Green and Melvin Sparks. The previous two records were loaded with different effected tones, and hardly any were clean. For a long time, I’ve appreciated players who made the guitar sound like something else—such as Adrian Belew, Bill Frisell, and David Torn—but, these days, I’m getting into more of what the guitar sounds like on its own.

What is your current gear setup?
I just started playing a ’70 Gibson ES-175—which is fun, because I haven’t had a big hollowbody for a really long time. The guitar sounds on the recording are mostly a ’66 Gibson ES-335—although sometimes I played a Fender Strat. My main amp on the CD was an early-’70s Fender Pro Reverb. The only effects I used were a Boss OC-2 Octave, a vintage MXR Distortion +, and a Dunlop CryBaby wah. Also, we ran the slide guitar part on “Newbie” through a Korg Kaoss Pad after it was laid down.

Your slide phrases are interesting. Can you provide some insight as to your approach?
I first got into slide 15 years ago, because I was playing with Jai Uttal, and listening to Indian slide players such as Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Brij Bhushan Kabra, and Debashish Bhattacharya. It’s some of the most amazing playing ever, and it’s way beyond me. Indian music is very melodic, and one of the highlights of the style is to pick one note and slide it around without picking again. I incorporate that technique into my way of playing phrases as best I can by using a Dunlop metal slide on my pinky.

How did the tunes on Party Hats come together?
“Chin Up” was written with the band in rehearsal, and all the other tracks started with pieces I composed—although several of them ended up turning into something else once the other musicians added their parts. The first track, “Share the Sea,” is based on the opening guitar riff, which I thought was an Afrobeat thing until they started playing along. When I wrote “White Elephant Sale,” I thought it was a boogaloo tune, and then Jan Jackson played a dancehall beat that turned it into more of a dancehall boogaloo [laughs].

What does boogaloo mean to you, and how does it relate to soul-jazz?
The word “boogaloo” comes from a ’50s or ’60s Latin dance term and beat that influenced the early soul-jazz pioneers. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s “Alligator Bogaloo” from 1967 is a classic. It has an all-star lineup that includes George Benson on guitar, Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ, and Idris Mohammed on drums. About that same time, a guitarist named Ivan “Boogaloo” Joe Jones hit the scene. People started calling this music boogaloo, which, to my ears, is James Brown funk mixed with a Latin clave beat. Soul-jazz is a broader term—like R&B.

What tunes would you recommend to someone who wants to explore soul-jazz?
If I had to name a top five to learn, I’d start with “Alligator Bogaloo,” Dr. Lonnie Smith’s “Play It Back,” and Grant Green’s “Windjammer.” Any J.B.’s tune will do, but “Hot Pants Road” is a good choice. “Cissy Strut” by the Meters is a standard, but it’s so overplayed. “Look-ka Py Py” is a hipper option. Once you have a handle on those, you’re on your way.

What methods do you use to spice up a lengthy one-chord vamp?
I’ll lock up with the drummer’s hi-hat and snare, and get a dialogue going with my rhythm playing to make it interesting. I use dynamics to build and release tension, and I try to use interesting note choices for solos. For example, if the vamp is D7, I might play chords and scale patterns related to D Dorian to add a little more flavor than the typical pentatonic scale.

How do you see jazz in broad terms?
Jazz is a marriage of African and European music. Before jazz, there was blues, which was simpler and more African-sounding. Jazz developed when musicians added classical European chord changes. It can lean either way, and I’m swinging along in that continuum.