Thanks to artists like Bill Frisell and Nels Cline, the definition of jazz guitar has broadened so far that heated discussions are a regular occurrence, on and off the web. Certainly if an album like Frisell’s Nashville can win the Downbeat critic’s poll for best jazz album, we’re witnessing a significant shift that allows for considerably more latitude than ever before.
On the other hand, if you were to ask these artists if what they play is jazz, they’d likely answer your question with another one: “Why does it matter?” And truth be told, they’d be right. Still, wide-reaching artists like Dave Douglas cross multiple genre boundaries all the time as a matter of course, and yet still manage to remain within the broader jazz purview.
The good news is that well-known artists like Frisell and Douglas are making it possible for lesser-known ones like guitarist Will Bernard to release material like Directions to My House in the hopes of finding an audience that not only accepts his odd amalgam of styles including roots music, surf, funk, free jazz, and noise improv—but actually welcomes and embraces it.
Bernard first came to some attention with TJ Kirk, a group that also included 8-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, guitarist John Schott, and drummer Scott Amendola, creating an idiosyncratic blend of music inspired by James Brown, Thelonious Monk, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But while Hunter has gone on to greater fame, Bernard has for the most part remained a hidden gem of the Bay Area scene. Still, he’s appeared on nearly thirty recordings in the past fifteen years, working with artists like organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and reedman Peter Apfelbaum (who guests on one track on this disc).
Joining Bernard on Directions to My House are bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Ches Smith, two players with the same kind of lateral thinking as Bernard. Hoff, in fact, plays in the Nels Cline Singers, providing a direct link between Bernard and Cline’s music—a clear antecedent to the musical space on Directions to My House, along with Frisell.
“Not Necessarily Stoned” opens the album with a quirky roots vibe and Jim Keltner-esque behind-the-beat groove from Smith that would fit comfortably alongside Frisell’s Gone, Just Like a Train. But that’s only the beginning, as “Crab Apple Red” moves into a more open-ended space that has precedence in swing, but only in the broadest sense of the word. And while Bernard never displays Cline’s staggeringly virtuostic technique, “Hall of Science” and the closing “Two Hot Dogs & A Strawberry Soda” both come from a similar place where complicated themes ultimately deconstruct into more chaotic free play.
But despite the clear references, Bernard’s approach is his own. Resting somewhere between Cline’s muscular hyperspeed and Frisell’s more languid sensibility, Directions to My House will appeal to fans of both while opening their eyes to Bernard, a player who clearly deserves a wider audience for his imaginative genre-busting aesthetic.
– John Kelman
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