HT Interview: Ain’t No Bugs on Will Bernard

Blessedly, there are live dates, too. Few and far between live dates – March 20 in San Francisco, followed by Los Angeles, three in Colorado, the D.C. area and New York – but live dates all the same. Hidden Track caught up with Bernard in February to talk “Blue Plate,” soul jazz and supergrouping.

HT: You’ve been in New York about a year and a half. What prompted the move?

WB: I’d been wanting to do that for a long time, but it took me a while to get out there. One by one, a lot of my friends that I play music with on the West Coast had moved – there’s this whole transplanted Bay Area music population in New York right now. It’s pretty odd sometimes, but it just seemed like I had gone as far as I could out there, and I wanted some new challenges and more people to play with.

HT: What have been the biggest differences in the opportunities you can find here [New York] versus out there?

WB: There’s not a whole lot of comparison. New York has so much more going on and there’s such a super high level of musicianship all over the place. I think in the Bay Area, I was one of a handful of guitar players trying to get to a certain level. In New York, though, there are dozens and dozens of those, and tons of people who play better than me. I have to work a lot harder, but I can set my sights a little higher in terms of what I want to achieve.

HT: I imagine you get out a bunch when you’re not on the road. What are some of your favorite places in New York to see music?

WB: Well that’s another thing about New York – you can go hear great music any night of the week. Not that I couldn’t do that in the Bay Area, but in New York, there are five or six things that I’d want to hear every night. My favorite place is the Village Vanguard – they have high quality and there’s never any fluff. I also go to little bars and check out what they have, and I go to Sullivan Hall and the Highline, and a bunch of places in Brooklyn.

HT: What do you miss about California?

WB: I think some things about the laid back nature of California. But a lot of people brought that here, too. Hearing musicians in New York, there’s so much tension and activity – everything’s moving so fast. Some players who came from California – Charlie and Peter Apfelbaum and Joshua Redman – I don’t know exactly, but they bring that California thing, a little more of a relaxed feel, to New York music.

HT: Do you have that, too?

WB: I think it’s a good combination – the laid-back feeling but intensified with more of a rigorous jazz outlook. I was pretty influenced by the whole Knitting Factory scene over the years – that was a lot of great music, and obviously John Medeski came out of that. I’ve played a lot with New Orleans musicians, too, and Stanton is obviously very New Orleans. And Andy Hess is originally from the Bay Area but he’s been in New York a long time.

HT: That’s quite a lineup you’ve assembled. How did you arrive at these particular personnel?

WB: Well, one of my ideas was to do a record with Dr. Lonnie Smith – that was one direction I was thinking of doing. The other was with Medeski and Stanton, we did a gig at Jazz Fest in 2006, that trio, and that was the first time I’d played with them and we had such a good time, just seemed like an easy fit. I ended up deciding that was the way to go, for whatever reason, because I think I was playing so many gigs with Stanton anyway [in the Stanton Moore Trio] and we both couldn’t get away for very long.

HT: How did you connect with Andy Hess? He left Gov’t Mule last summer, and it seems like he’s playing a bunch of different combos and situations right now.

WB: The first time I heard Andy was actually with John Scofield, when Andy replaced Jesse Murphy. I thought he had a great concept on the bass – really kind of a rock concept that I liked, really digging into the notes. Then I heard him again with Avi Bortnick’s group and I got to meet him and hang out with him more – he played with a lot of my friends in New York. He’s one of the cats. Plus, he had played with Medeski and Stanton before so they both knew him. That was another big thing because I didn’t want to get somebody they didn’t know. That’s the trickiest thing – the drums/bass thing. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes two players you think would sound great together don’t necessarily do.

HT: It’s a Will Bernard album but there’s plenty of everybody on it. Was that by design or just something that emerged as you began to work the material?

WB: For the most part the pieces I brought in were pretty loose. We didn’t have much time to rehearse and I wanted to leave it open so anyone else that wanted to bring music in could, or, we could come up with some stuff in the studio. Medeski brought some things and Andy brought in Baby Goats, and Gonzo is a James Booker tune that MMW had done. That fit the concept, but of course we ended up doing a ska version, and I’ll bet you never thought you’d hear Stanton play ska in a million years. We were just sort of joking around and then it happened.

The song Blue Plate Special was something we put together in the studio. And the last song, How Great Thou Art is a gospel song and a song that Stanton’s grandmother used to sing him. There are a million versions of it – Elvis Presley does a great one – but it was good to do.

HT: So there is a little of everybody in it.

WB: They’re all people with such strong personalities, and when you have that you want to let them do their thing as much as possible.

HT: Will you be doing more dates with this quartet?

WB: I hope so. Medeski, in particular, has a rather demanding schedule this year, but we may end up doing it with different keyboardists if we have to. We’re going to see how it goes and hopefully it’ll be great.

HT: With all you have going on, I can’t imagine you plan too far in advance.

WB: Yeah, I’m kind of one of those guys who never quite knows what I’m going to do next. I’m going to Japan with [jazz and rock piano staple] Ben Sidran in June, and we’ll have more Stanton Moore Trio dates in the U.K., as well as another Stanton Moore Trio record this summer. I have to figure out my next record but I don’t know just yet. I’m just trying to keep busy, you know?

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