By: Sarah Moore
Along the same organ-fueled lines as his debut album, Medicine Hat, Will Bernard's Party Hats (Palmetto Records), involves a long list of session musicians. A laid-back funk beat made up of loose percussion and crisp B3 organ form the background of much of this disc. With the backdrop in place, Bernard proceeds with his intricate guitar riffs and blues-heavy phrases.
Clever great Cochemea Gastelum (Robert Walter's 20th Congress, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Amy Winehouse, The Headhunters) appears on the initial track, "Share The Sea," with a strict, dirty alto saxophone interludes. Bernard also welcomes several other prominent jazz-funk mainstays including Hammond organ player Wil Blades (Dr. Lonnie Smith, Melvin Sparks), Peter Apfelbaum (Trey Anastasio Band) on tenor sax, qarqabas, and melodica, Dave Ellis (Sonny Rollins, Charlie Hunter Trio) on tenor sax and Adam Theis (Jazz Mafia Trio) on gritty, muted trombone.
Party Hats is basically pure groove music led by Bernard, who sets up a subtle shtick like “Leo’s Cat” and lets his boys roll with it. While all of these selections are Bernard-penned – the exception being “Chin Up,” which features Keith McArthur (Michael Franti & Spearhead) and Jan Jackson (Dave Grossman) as co-composers - he doesn't ignore his jazz roots. Bernard gets the sounds just right with the rotating cast of instrumental characters. However, with this extensive guest list, the album misses the conciseness of a trio or quartet session, and at times sounds a bit superfluous. That said, Bernard settles into a thematic groove, with most of the tracks weaving gently into and out of each other. Most of the session players are friends and had performed with one another in other outlets, so they generally take similar approaches to achieving their fusion sound. Their informal attitude appeals to the live show chemistry that makes this genre so captivating.
Bernard experiments with his tone especially in “Newbie” (featuring Paul Spina on drums and Ryan Newman on bass) with a sitar sound that he plays in unison with himself. With this Eastern flavor, Wil Blades follows suit, utilizing his echoing Hammond for a far-off sound. Bernard can't help but invite comparisons to Charlie Hunter’s funkier side – though without Hunter's signature low-end - with his groove tactics, but he also explores new territory here. Bernard's explorations result in a basic good time with his musical cohorts on an album where no one forgot their party hat.
JamBase | California
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