On ‘Pond Life,’ Guitarist Will Bernard Creates Liberating Musical Boundaries (ALBUM REVIEW)

Moving on from the easygoing simplicity of the 2021 trio outing Ancient Grains (with keyboardist Sam Yahel & drummer Dennis Edwards), Will Bernard has now bravely undertaken an expedition into more exploratory realms on Pond Life. Aided and abetted by similarly courageous musicians including John Medeski and Tim Berne, the prolific guitarist/composer leads the way for musicians as liberated as he is, their interactions sans undue expectations or constrictive boundaries. These players adhere to only those limits imposed by their potent chemistry.

The aforementioned pair of stalwart adventurers are not the only willing and able accompanists for Bernard here. Acoustic and electric bassist Chris Lightcap further enhances his increasingly elevated profile—see Superbigmouth and Superette out in successive recent years–with imaginative playing on “Four Is More,” among others, while drummer Ches Smith, he of collaborations with forward-thinking guitarists Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell, is as redoubtable in his own way as his partner in the rhythm section: hear the panache he displays around the kit during “That Day.”

Such far-reaching action had commenced with “Poor Man’s Speedball” as the ingenious  Medeski’s slightly-atonal sonic sketches open up room for Bernard to enter and circle around the swirling organ lines. Much the same purposefully off-kilter tones pervade the following cut, “Type A,” this time with acoustic piano notes nestling in around Smith’s rhythmic punctuations while the guitarist stretches glimmering lines from his strings over under and around those ringing tones.

It’s a measure of the balance within Pond Life that the four cuts with just a trio of Bernard, Lightcap, and Smith are hardly any less arresting than those featuring larger ensembles. The very impact of those skeletal tracks is all the greater for their spacing at three points near the beginning (“Surds”), middle (“Moving Target”), and close to the end of the ten selections (“Motooz” and “Lake of Greater Remnants,” the former as heavy as the latter is lilting). Will Bernard’s own savvy production ensures the musicianship rests in the proper setting to maximize its vigor and, not surprisingly, the commensurate depth of the audio correlates to the firm instrumental grasp of all the players involved. 

The track sequencing also sets out saxophonist Berne’s appearances in the greatest possible relief. “Still Drinkin’,” for instance, moves at the fastest tempo of the record with the sound of the horn alternately setting, then following, the rapid pace. There’s next to no hesitation here or, for that matter, anywhere in the course of these forty-some minutes, so although the latter track’s duration is the shortest time on the album, the generally more languid movement of the following title tune allows Berne the benefit of even greater contrast. And it’s not just in comparison with the preceding number, but with the flurries of notes, the bandleader generates in their stead.

Long-time fans of Will Bernard have no doubt learned how he can confound preconceptions and expectations from record to record in the total of twelve under his own name. While Pond Life presents a listening experience distinctly different from the prior album, the alternately challenging and accessible nature of this music (like that of 2020’s Freelance Subversives), certainly encourages an open-minded approach to this somewhat under-the-radar musician’s discography. Perhaps what’s most delightful in discovering the man’s oeuvre is that the process itself so closely corresponds to the liberating sensation that invariably arises from hearing the music. 

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