The field of jazz guitarists is brimming these days, and it can be hard to get recognition unless you’re carrying some major ’70s clout. This is why many of us aren’t well acquainted with Will Bernard, an expansive player from the San Francisco Bay Area who’s been churning out various funk, jazz and hip-hop projects since his debut in 1998. His fourth album as a bandleader, Party Hats, finds him waving the downtempo funk flag proudly, leading a solid group of players through 11 original compositions.
Bernard’s choppy funk rhythm kicks off the record’s opening track, “Share the Sea,” which features guitar and horns playing in unison on their way to a cheesy Tonight Show-style refrain. “Leo’s Cat” dabbles in slow, deliberate funk, showcasing Bernard’s keen timing amongst sweet Hammond B3 swells by Wil Blades. “Afro Sheen,” the album’s longest track at almost seven minutes, allows the horn section to stretch out and lets Bernard show off his speed on the fretboard before dropping into a contemplative and catchy groove.
Bernard plays a brand of funk that makes people want to get up and dance, but the bass is always so low in the mix that the album lacks the bottom end that is so crucial to funk. For the most part, Bernard’s tunes are nothing to write home about either, but his phrasing is amiable and fluid. His tone is reminiscent of Melvin Sparks but his arrangements manage to remain distinct. Bernard definitely has the chops to muster some clout of his own, but he needs to push beyond his comfort zone to gain the recognition of which he’s capable. Here’s hoping he does.