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Will Bernard Taps Into Eclectic Delights on Pond Life

Britt Robson dives into the guitarist's latest release

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Will Bernard (photo: Marc Millman)
Will Bernard (photo: Marc Millman)

Guitarist Will Bernard bears the bittersweet blessing of virtuosic skill and eclectic taste, making his music a perpetual delight and yet hard to categorize. Maybe it’s because he was reared in Berkeley, California, site of one of the precious few jazz programs in a public high school, and was a fixture in the audience back when the Keystone Berkeley was renowned as one the most experimental, open-minded music clubs in the country.

“Yeah, I kind of thrive off that—being involved in different kinds of music,” Bernard said with a verbal shrug over the phone in late April. As if to prove the point, he’d moved the call up a couple of hours so he could catch a flight from his home in Brooklyn down to New Orleans, where he was booked to play 14 gigs with various ensembles as part of Jazz Fest. 

In late May, Bernard released Pond Life, the latest example in what has become a discography of stealth treasures. In classic Bernard fashion, the configuration of the ensemble manages to be stable and in flux at the same time. Of the 10 Bernard originals, four are performed as a trio with bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Ches Smith; keyboardist John Medeski and alto saxophonist Tim Berne are individually added for four quartet numbers (two apiece), and the remaining two bring them all together as a quintet.

Bernard likens Pond Life to his 2005 album Welcome to My House in that it has a strong compositional structure that’s still open to improvisation; he felt that Smith was an invaluable colleague on that earlier record and needed him back for this one. But where Welcome to My House was strictly a trio record, Pond Life’s instrumentation is more elastic, incorporating players who are no shrinking violets. Asked about Medeski and Berne’s extravagant styles, Bernard replied, “That’s why I got them.”

The new record opens with “Poor Man’s Speedball,” which Bernard described as “a jazz version of a Captain Beefheart instrumental.” Medeski’s swirling B-3 organ dominates for a while, then yields to Bernard’s tasty riffs, hectored by Smith’s propulsion. On “Surds,” Lightcap’s foot-tapping intro brings in the quaver of Bernard’s slide guitar and the trio deploys an irresistible groove that feels like an interpolation of Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” before resolving into a spare staccato close that includes a Lightcap solo. “Yeah, there is a lot of blues in there; I can’t help it, it’s what I do,” Bernard acknowledged. 

“Still Drinkin’?” spends half its time as spectral free jazz, then inexorably starts rocking out, climaxed by Berne’s burnt-bark entry on alto, his thrilling first appearance on Pond Life, coming midway through the fourth song. It reminds you that T.J. Kirk, the mid-’90s quartet that Bernard was in with fellow guitarist Charlie Hunter, was so named because its repertoire consisted of cover songs by Thelonious Monk (T), James Brown (J), and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. 

“It’s like opening this door and you are in another world.”

Other compositions take on a suite-like structure, their parts variously serpentine or abruptly juxtaposed: “I like it when the improvisation opens into this other thing, similar but real different than how it starts out. It’s like opening this door and you are in another world.” 

Like most of Bernard’s work, there’s probably too much to remember about Pond Life, but repeated listens are rewarding. Take it from Bernard himself, who acknowledges the commercial limitations of his eclectic approach and says he is his own worst critic but adds, “I really enjoy listening to this record. I’m proud of it. And who knows? Sometimes when you are true to yourself, you can make a more successful record.”