The California-born, Brooklyn-based guitarist Will Bernard turned 60 last year, but you sure wouldn’t know it from looking at him, or listening to him. Indeed, his open mind and elastic playing style have made him seem consistently younger than his age ever since he started his recording career 30 years ago. That notion was nurtured by his mid-1990s work in the groundbreaking Bay Area band T.J. Kirk, in which he helped craft playful, creative instrumental cover versions of material by James Brown, Thelonious Monk, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk with guitarists Charlie Hunter and John Schott and drummer Scott Amendola. Bernard’s solo career started shortly thereafter, and his recent Freelance Subversives continues that youth movement.
Bernard’s inclusive nature has resulted in a catalog spanning everything from traditional jazz to world music to hip-hop. The benefits include a dexterity that gives him equal footing in clean hollow-bodied guitar tones, as on the opening raveup “Pusher Danish,” and distortion and effects on subsequent funk numbers like “Back Channel,” both aided by keyboardist Eric Finland, bassist Ben Zwerin, drummer Eric Kalb, and percussionist Moses Patrou. More than a tinge of the guitarist’s work in the side trio of Galactic’s New Orleans-born drummer Stanton Moore surfaces in Big Easy feels like the strutting “Raffle,” with Finland and fellow keyboardist Ben Stivers dueling it out and tenor/baritone saxophonist Skerik forming a one-man overdubbed horn section.
Jay Rodriguez does likewise on tenor and baritone saxes and flute on the greasy funk numbers “Grunk,” “Skill Set” (which features a banner, bop-inspired Bernard solo), and the title track, and John Medeski adds his signature Hammond and Wurlitzer parts to the infectious “Clafunj” and acidic, tribal-sounding ballad “Garage A” on this all-original disc. The only thing missing is a creative instrumental cover of a chestnut. Perhaps Bernard’s next effort could include a fitting rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”