Black and white photo of artists young and cool and holding their instruments. Some graffiti is on a wall behind them
Beth Custer and Will Bernard in the 1990s. Courtesy of the artists

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If guitarist Will Bernard tends to get typecast as a groove-oriented player who thrives in funkified settings, well, he’s provided plenty of material to furnish that pigeonhole. But the Berkeley High alum has always cast a wide conceptual net, dating back to his years studying contemporary composition at Cal with Andrew Imbrie. 

Long based in Brooklyn, he returns to the Bay Area for a series of duo gigs this weekend with San Francisco clarinetist and vocalist Beth Custer, a longtime creative foil who inspires his most telegraphic lyricism. With performances Friday at Berkeley’s Hillside Club, Saturday at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House, and Sunday afternoon at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Community Center they’re celebrating last week’s release of Sky, a sublime duo album focusing on original tunes that gently unfurl like conversations between old friends who need only a few phrases to evoke shared memories of bliss, whimsey and melancholy.

Artists holding instruments in a backyard garden
Beth Custer and Will Bernard. Courtesy of the artists

They’ve been working together for three decades, including a co-led band that played around the region throughout the ‘90s. They’ve also performed intermittently as a duo, mostly at little coffee shops and cafes. But in recent years gigs at the Red Poppy, Bird & Beckett and SFJAZZ were so well received they decided to start making an album, recording a few tracks at a time, largely following Allen Ginsberg’s dictum “first thought, best thought.”

“For me, a really good challenge is to take up the space of the rhythm section,” Bernard said. “I rarely play solo, so the duo with Beth is not only fun, but also a kind of a puzzle. We kind of subtract parts and work with what’s left. One thing I love is her simplicity and her writing, simple but to-the-point and soulful. Like on the album’s first song, ‘Bear In Shamanic Transformation,’ it’s easier to improvise when you have a simpler structure.”

Album cover of Sky by Will Bernard & Beth Custer. It shows people walking on the beach very small, with the sky and sand nearly indistinguishable

Custer is hardly the only Bay Area relationship he’s maintained since moving east. Bernard has often reunited, in Damn Skippy!, with guitarist John Schott and drummer Scott Amendola, Berkeleyans who were his bandmates in the Grammy-nominated ‘90s quartet T.J. Kirk. But the connection with Custer has manifested again and again, often in bands she created to play specific bodies of music, like her groups Eighty Mile Beach and Doña Luz 30 Besos.

A prolific composer who first came to prominence writing scores for silent films as a founding member of Club Foot Orchestra, Custer has also worked extensively with choreographer and Cal dance professor Joe Goode over the years. Getting back to performing regularly after a long pandemic hiatus, she’s got a bevy of fascinating gigs on the calendar, including her spectacular clarinet quartet Clarinet Thing with Sheldon Brown, Ben Goldberg and Harvey Wainapel which performs Sept. 30 at the Oaktown Jazz Workshops as part of Jim Bennett’s In The Moment series.

Throughout all her various activities, the connection with Bernard never ceases to thrum. “We continue to have a blast,” she said. “We know each other so well, there’s nothing quite like it. You can end a phrase together. 

I listened to Sky the other day and I think it tells a story in a way. It’s like a movie in your mind.”

Friday, Sept. 8. 7:30 p.m. Hillside Club. $25

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....