Will Bernard. Courtesy: Kuumbwa Jazz

Though Mike Clark only spent a few years touring and recording with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, the oft-sampled drummer is indelibly linked to that seminal 1970s funk fusion band. The fact that he thinks of himself more as a hard-swinging player in the mold of Philly Joe Jones, who powered trumpeter Miles Davis’s era-defining 1950s quintet, doesn’t make much of a difference. He can’t shake the funk. 

Berkeley-reared guitarist Will Bernard knows the feeling. It’s not just that he’s played with widely with Clark in various settings. Despite a resume that encompasses klezmer and French café music, silent film scores, straight-ahead jazz and contemporary classical composition, Bernard is inextricably tied to a groove-centric sound. Honestly, it’s his own fault, as his funk outings always deliver a memorable dose of grease. Dividing his time between Brooklyn and Berkeley in recent years, he’s back in town for a pandemic-delayed tour celebrating his 2020 Ropeadope Records release Freelance Subversives, starting Thursday at Freight & Salvage

“This is the first all-funk oriented album I’ve done in a decade and I wanted to go all out and make a real funky record,” said Bernard, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1977 and went on the earn a degree in composition from UC Berkeley. “It’s funny because I released three albums on Posi-tone before this that are much more in the jazz realm, but people still associate me with funk.”

His upcoming dates won’t do anything to dilute that impression. At the Freight he’s joined by a bicoastal crew that includes East Bay electric bassist Victor Little and Berkeley percussionist Josh Jones, a close Bernard collaborator for more than three decades, dating back to their days as rhythm section partners in Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble. From New York City, he’s importing keyboardist Eric Finland and drummer Eric Kalb, “who was one of the first guys I met when I moved out here,” Bernard said, referring to his mid-career relocation to Brooklyn in 2007.  

Best known as a founding member of the funk rock outfit Deep Banana Blackout, he’s also toured and recorded with jazz guitar icon John Scofield and Berkeley-reared seven-string guitar ace Charlie Hunter. “We’re pretty tight friends and I’ve wanted to do a record with him since we’ve been playing together so long,” Bernard said. “He’s a great funk drummer, and I wanted to tailor the music to what he does best.”

Bernard also performs with the Freelance Subversives quintet June 14 at Lytton Plaza in Palo Alto and July 16 at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center (with Adam Klipple taking over the keyboard chair). After a two-year pandemic hiatus, Bernard has once again become a regular presence on Bay Area bandstands. In recent months he’s performed at the California Jazz Conservatory with Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s Glamorous Escapes and at Bird & Beckett Books and Records in his long-running duo project with clarinetist Beth Custer

And in a blast from the past, Bernard, John Schott and Scott Amendola, three-fourths of the Grammy-nominated 1990s band T.J. Kirk, reunited at the Ivy Room in Damn Skippy! a mesmerizing quintet with Tony Award-winning bassist Todd Sickafoose and violinist Jenny Scheinman. 

He’s not only covering a lot of musical ground in concert. His Freelance Subversives tour coincides with the release of his new album Pond Life, an expansive jazz trio session with bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Ches Smith (joined on a few tracks by saxophonist Tim Berne and keyboardist John Medeski). If there’s a thread running through all the different projects, it’s Bernard’s devotion to composition. 

Before he started making a name for himself on the Bay Area music scene, he was a self-described “classical nerd” who studied with Andrew Imbrie at Cal. He put jazz and other musical styles on hold while plunging into harmonically dense thickets of contemporary music, though he felt he “never quite fit in.” Instead of pursuing a graduate degree, he started working around the region, supporting himself largely in a series of decidedly un-Top 40 wedding bands. 

“I had a Persian/Armenian wedding gig that helped,” he said. “And I was in a klezmer band, Hotzeplotz, with Ben Goldberg, Dan Seamans, and first Kaila Flexer on violin and then Irene Sazer. Kenny Wollesen was the drummer and he was like 20 years old.”

A passionate Francophile, he also played wedding and cafe gigs with accordionist Odile Lavaut’s Baguette Quartette. “Those were my bread-and-butter gigs,” he said. As the Bay Area’s multifarious acid jazz scene took off in the early 1990s, Bernard was in the thick of the action, playing in more than a dozen bands. But it wasn’t until Charlie Hunter assembled the unusual three-guitar-and-drums combo T.J. Kirk that his name started to spread beyond the Bay Area. With a moniker assembled from the names of composers TJK played —Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk — the band caught a break when Bernard slipped a tape to Berkeley producer Lee Townsend, which led to a deal with Warner Bros. He’s been looking to use his compositional skills in different ways ever since.

Speaking of Yellowjackets made good, Will Bernard’s Berkeley High bandmate Peck Allmond has just released a new album on Eastlawn Records, Live at Yoshi’s 1994, which features the trumpeter and tenor saxophonist with the late great pianist Ed Kelly, bassist John Wiitala, and another beloved and departed musician, drummer Bud Spangler. Focusing on classic modern jazz tunes and standards, it’s a loose and energetic session that captures Kelly’s muscular accompaniment. They’re joined by special guest tenor saxophonist Kenny Brooks on a briskly swinging version of “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise.” 

Venezuelan-born, Emeryville-based piano maestro Edward Simon, the longest serving current member of the SFJAZZ Collective, returns to Freight & Salvage June 10 with Steel House, his exquisite collective trio with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade (the group also plays Kuumbwa on June 9). Simon recently released Solo Live, an unedited document of his Piedmont Piano Company concert celebrating his 50th birthday in 2019. In Steel House, he couldn’t be keeping better company. Individually, over the past three decades, Colley and Blade are two of jazz’s most sought after and recorded musicians. Together, they have an extraordinary rapport that also manifested in Joshua Redman’s quartet Still Dreaming. 

Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....