Photos by Jon Weber
In every major city, there is a hidden jewel. Maybe it is the fantastic restaurant off the beaten track worn down by tourists. In other cases, it is a discreet beach where you can find just a tad bit of solitude to go with your sun. In some instances, it is a local musician, one who consistently engages, and challenges the listeners, yet rarely makes it out onto the national tour circuit. In the case of San Francisco, perhaps one of the most beautiful cities around, the hidden jewel comes in the form of a guitarist-composer by the name Will Bernard.
The name TJ Kirk is more likely to garner you a look of recognition before the name of one-fourth of the band, Will Bernard will ring a bell. As one of three guitarist in TJ Kirk (Charlie Hunter being another of the band members), Will Bernard is probably one of the most talented guitarists on the scene, but for inexplicable reasons, remains to be one of the lesser known talents around.
So just who is Will Bernard? As leader of Will Bernard and Motherbug, Will has been a part of the San Francisco music scene professionally since the early nineties.
"I picked up the guitar when I was about ten," explains Will of his early start with the music world, "I had already been playing piano, and a friend of mother’s brought over a guitar, and I can remember being really impressed that he could play guitar." A few weeks later, Will too joined the ranks of guitar players, as the aforementioned friend then arranged to buy a guitar for the young Bernard.
"It was this little cheapo guitar, and I loved it. I would play it all day long, and listen to records all day long."
Though originally influenced by more rock and pop, locality lead him to jazz. Growing up in California, Will attended Berkeley High School (whose jazz program boasts prestigious alumni such as jazz talents Peter Apfelbaum, Ben Ball, Dave Ellis, Rodney Franklin, Kito Gamble, Benny Green, Craig Handy, Jessica Jones, Josh Jones, David Murray, Miles Perkins, Lenny Pickett, Josh Redman and Michael Wolff).
"I have always been all over the place musically, kinda eclectic. I guess I started out with classical, then quickly started playing rock, and then I got into jazz when I was in high school."
Graduating with a degree in classical music composition from the University of California, Bernard still remains all over the place with his music. Prior to his current band Will Bernard and Motherbug, Will's music resume credits stints with various Peter Apfelbaum projects (including Hieroglyphics Ensemble), Beth Custer, The Coup and Midnight Voices, Jai Uttal and the Pagan Love Orchestra, and the aforementioned project with Charlie Hunter, known as TJ Kirk, and the Will Bernard 4-tet. Influenced by a variety of world music (case in point, currently burning up his CD player is Fanfare Ciocarlia, an eleven-man brass and woodwind band comes from the village of Zece Prajini, which lies near the Romanian-Moldavian border), the sound of his current band is based in a "guitar/keyboard heavy blend of R&B with strong ties to the Bay Area sound pioneered in the 60's and 70's (ala Santana, Sly Stone, and Tower of Power)." Completing the mix, and consequently setting it apart, is the quirkiness of Will's compositions, which engage elements of "lounge, surf, and anything else that gets picked up on the way."
"I am easily distracted by all sorts of musical distractions. It’s weird because I get influenced by everything. You know, I am influenced by Robert Walter because I played with him last night. I am like a sponge-kinda of guy."
Will Bernard and Motherbug has opened for such impressive acts as Herbie Hancock and the Head Hunters, Jimmy McGriff, The Funky Meters, John Scofield, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Zigaboo Modeliste and the Charlie Hunter Quartet. In addition, the band also performed a nine city tour as part of a Canadian Jazz festival in 1999.
Evolving from The Will Bernard 4-tet, Motherbug is Keith McArthur and Jan Jackson (rhythm), and Michael Bluestein on keys. Though the band has primarily spent the last two years playing locally in San Francisco, and up the west coast, they are planning to expand their tour schedule. Though still currently in the works, in addition to planned gigs during this year’s Jazz Fest, Colorado folks can expect to the see the band soon, while New Yorkers can take advantage of checking Will out in late February- early March, when he plans to sit in around town before headlining Will Bernard and Otherbug March 2nd, at Tobacco Road. A special project, which has the San Francisco native backed by local musicians Matt Rubano (bass), Deantoni Parks (drums), Josh Roseman (trombone), and Adam Klipple (keys), allows Bernard to check out some of the sights and sounds of the Big Apple.
"I always have a great time out there. I have a lot of friends out there, and it is so action packed for musicians. There is always something amazing going on there."
Lest you thought there might not be enough on his plate, Will has found plenty of other activities to keep himself busy. In addition to Will Bernard and Motherbug, Will can also be found playing the banjo and the guitar in a French group called the Baguette Quartette.
"We play Django Rheinhardt style," he explains of the sound of the band. In addition to playing French music, interestingly enough, Will also speaks near fluent French.
"I learned it in school. And I used to hang out in France, and have French friends. So now I play in a French band."
As if that is not enough to keep this hot guitarist on his toes, Will was also found not too long ago on stage with the likes of Les Claypool (bass), Mike Clark (drums), Boots Riley (vocals) and Robert Walter (keys) raising money to benefit California Aids Ride 8. More recently fans had the opportunity to catch Will and support another good cause as he sat in in early February with Mofro at the Mofro Medical Bills Benefit, along side of Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, and special guest Dave Ellis. Last but not least, keep your eyes out for a new album, that Will is in the process of developing, which is to feature a bunch of [to be named] "named" musicians.
To stay on top of what this funky guitarist has in store, or to purchase his latest CD, Motherbug, check out Will’s official site (willbernard.com), and for Will Bernard downloads check, MP3's. Also do yourself a favor
and definitely stop by and check him out in a nearby venue.
JamBase NYC Correspondent
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