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Will Bernard: Freelance Subversives
by George Graham
(Independent Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/20/2020)
Instrumental funk music is, I suppose, a rather specialized genre, with singers being such a strong part of the soul and funk scenes. But there are some notable exceptions, and interestingly in Europe there have been some good funk bands that are free from vocals. On this side of the Atlantic, there have been sectors of the jazz-rock fusion scene which have moved into funk territory, going back to the early albums by the Brecker Brothers, and of course Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock with their pioneering recordings. More contemporary examples have found some audience from among jam band fans. This week we have a new funk-influenced instrumental album that provides some interesting variety along with the grooves. It’s by guitarist Will Bernard, and the title is Freelance Subversives.
Will Bernard was born and grew up in Berkeley, California, but has been based in Brooklyn, NY for some years now. He studied jazz guitar, but also got into studies of classical composition. He graduated with a degree in music from the University of California at Berkeley. Over the years, his career has taken him to straight-ahead and avant garde jazz, some world music with Jai Uttal, and a hip-hop group called the Coup.
Since the mid 1990s, Bernard has been appearing on a series of albums with various groups, including the band T.J. Kirk, who were nominated for a Grammy Award in 1997. He has also been a part of a group headed by New Orleans drummer Stanton Moore who has put out his share of worthwhile funk. But Bernard has also been releasing albums under his own name, including Blue Plate Special which we featured on this review series in 2008. Since then, he has issued some more straight ahead jazz recordings, including in an organ combo setting. The new album, Freelance Subversives spends most of its time in funk-land, though there is variety of sound and groove to keep it interesting. There’s a basic back-up band, including Eric Finland and Ben Stivers alternating on keyboards, Ben Zwerin and Jeff Hanley taking turns on bass, and Moses Patrou on percussion. Four of the tracks feature horns, including the one-named saxophonist Skerik, and Jay Rodriguez also on sax.
Like much of the funk genre, the rhythmic groove is the key, but as the generous hour-plus-long album proceeds, the tunes start to get more interesting with their arrangements and some of the tracks have something of a melody you can hum.
Opening is a piece called Pusher Danish an energetic tune that has a groove somewhere between rock jam band and boogaloo. It’s a good example of the album’s strength. <<>>
In a somewhat more conventional funk groove is the following track, Back Channel. Bernard puts in an interesting and somewhat quirky guitar solo. <<>>
More laid-back is a track called Blue Chenille which to me has a kind of cinematic quality, evoking perhaps a European film of the 1960s. <<>>
On the other hand, a track called Grunk seems well-named with its vaguely unsettling quality in the context of the danceable beat. The horns make an appearance<<>>
Another of the album’s highlights is a piece called Clafunj, which keeps a strong rock beat going and features some more jazzy elements in the arrangement. John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood makes a guest appearance on keyboards. <<>>
As mentioned, the album tends to get more interesting as it goes along. Lifer is a quirky piece that combines retro sounds with a kind of faux Latin sensibility. For me it again evokes some 1960s European crime movie. <<>>
While much of album generally has a funk-oriented texture, the track that probably gets into the deepest funk groove is Skill Set which goes low-down and dirty with some appropriate sax action. <<>>
The album ends with another of its best tracks, We the People with a great funk-rock groove. It give Bernard a chance for one of his most adventurous guitar solos on the album. <<>>
Freelance Subversives, the new release by veteran rock and funk guitarist Will Bernard is another gem is a string of recordings on which he was either leader or a prominent group member going back to the mid 1990s. Like most of Bernard’s projects, the rhythmic groove is the thing, played by the way, by real musicians and real drums. But beyond the groove, there are enough musical and arrangement ideas to keep the project engaging throughout the album’s more than an hour of play time. His band is tight and though there are opportunities for instrumental soloing, the solos tend to be succinct and make their statements without a lot of showing off.
Our grade for sound quality is about a “B.” This kind of groove-oriented music and it way it is usually mixed tends not to be audiophile oriented, with a lot of sonic subtlety. But the recording captures well the spirit of the music and is free from trendy studio tricks. Dynamic range, as can be expected, is not very wide with the music’s steady grooves.
The funk music that originated with people like James Brown in the 1960s carries on in an age of cookie-cutter computer generated hip-hop grooves. There have been an encouraging number of recent releases of such classic funk. Will Bernard’s new album Freelance Subversives is a great addition to the genre.
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