Will Bernard hasn’t been a stranger since he decamped to Brooklyn in 2007, but it’s always good to have him back in town. The Berkeley-raised guitarist was a mainstay on the Northern California music scene for more than two decades, a low-key player with an ostentatiously versatile sound rooted in funk. Whether playing New Orleans grooves, soul jazz, roots reggae, French musette or contributing to Tom Waits’ new album “Bad As Me,” he
Bernard returns to the Bay Area for a run of holiday gigs, including Friday night at Jupiter with drummer Brandon Etzler and Berkeley Hammond B3 expert Wil Blades (who’s featured on Bernard’s new CD “Outdoor Living”). Bernard also plays the Boom Boom Room on Christmas Eve (a jam session with keyboardist Eric Deutsch) and Dec. 29 with the Jazz Mafia horns.
Bernard was part of the generation that thrived under the jazz education program launched by Dr. Herb Wong, a mid-70s flowering that included Peter Apfelbaum, Steven Bernstein, Peck Almond, Tony Jones, Jessica Fuchs (now Jones), Paul Hanson, and Josh Jones. At the same time Bernard was soaking up funk blaring from neighborhood car radios and turn tables, he was studying the music in grade school.
“I wasn’t in the jazz band until later, but we had music appreciation with Dick Whittington,” Bernard says, referring to the esteemed jazz pianist who produced the Maybeck Recital Hall concert series for many years. “He’d play us James Brown and we’d have to count the bars until the bridge came in.”
The mild-mannered guitarist first made his mark with Peter Apfelbaum’s stylistically sprawling Hieroglyphics Ensemble. Bernard gained national attention with the Grammy-nominated guitar triumvirate T.J. Kirk, at the same time his band Medicine Hat was also signed to a major label. Before he left town Bernard could be found supplying a rock edge to percussionist Anthony Brown and the Asian American Orchestra’s Gershwin project “American Rhapsodies” and playing French cafe music with Odile Lavault’s whimsical Baguette Quartette. “I’m a little bit of a francophile,” Bernard says.
In recent years he’s toured widely with Galactic drummer Stanton Moore and the innovative roots reggae band Groundation. Hammond B3 legend Dr. Lonnie Smith is another regular employer. And when the brilliant New York jazz clarinetist Don Byron performed at Yoshi’s a few years back and needed a guitarist to play the instrumental R&B of Junior Walker, he gave Bernard the call.
It was Bernard’s knack for blending into any musical context and elevating it with his deft rhythm work and stinging single-note lines that impressed Stanton Moore when they first played together at JazzFest in New Orleans.
“When he sat in, he’s one of the few guitar players who didn’t showboat,” Moore says. “He wasn’t trying to make his personal mark as much as making the music better. He’s got a great ear, and a tremendous knowledge of different styles. He’s probably the most versatile guitar player I’ve ever worked with.”