GRAMMY Award-nominated guitarist Will Bernard knows a thing or ten about holding down the groove with a community of instrumentalists who've defined the influential improv-based music scene of New York City. Bernard's latest power-punch of funk hits on his new album, Freelance Subversives (Ropeadope), shows a dedication to multidimensional and introspective compositions with deep pocket-rhythms at its foundation. Freelance Subversives takes its cue from the album's title with Bernard's unflinching adeptness on his six-string that easily disrupts conventional standards of jazz guitar.
Freelance Subversives returns to a full band repertoire similar to Bernard's GRAMMY-nominated Party Hats (2007), which was released on the cusp of the Berkeley, Calif. native's move to New York City in 2007. New York proved to be a welcome change that saw musical opportunities proliferate. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic slamming New York City in spring/summer 2020, Bernard had Freelance Subversives mixed and ready to be released, as well as basic tracks for two other albums. He had just performed at Winter Jazz Fest (NYC) with the project Revelator featuring Bill Laswell, Peter Apfelbaum, and Aaron Johnston; and in late 2019, he performed his debut residency at John Zorn's series at The Stone. He was set with more than a dozen spring concerts surrounding the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (an annual happening for Bernard), as well as a summer West Coast tour booked to promote Freelance Subversives. John Medeski's Mad Skillet with Will and members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band were set to tour and record their second album. All the shows and recording sessions were cancelled due to COVID-19.
The title of Freelance Subversives spotlights the nature of professional musicians living against the grain of what society expects of working individuals. For artists whose craft falls within the cracks of music industry standards, these musicians are tasked with being savvy at adaptation and amalgamating to diverse opportunities to make ends meet. The pandemic has made these circumstances ever more dire, though Bernard stays positive while delivering unstoppable grooves on Freelance Subversives.
Special guests on Freelance Subversives include an inimitable horn section of saxophonists Sherik (Garage A Trois, Critters Buggin') and Jay Rodriguez (Groove Collective, Mark Ribot). John Medeski's masterful work on organ and Wurlitzer is a natural extension of his collaboration with Bernard for the project, Mad Skillet. The deft rhythm section is comprised of drummer Eric Kalb (Sharon Jones, John Scofield), percussionist Moses Patrou (Amy Helm), keyboardists Eric Finland (Eric Krasno) and Ben Stivers (Lyle Lovett), and bassists Ben Zwerin (Angelique Kidjo) and Jeff Hanley (Morgan James).
Will Bernard -- Freelance Subversives -- Featured Compositions
The up-tempo, quasi-cajun beat of "Pusher Danish" kicks off Freelance Subversives with an unmistakably NOLA groove driven by Eric Kalb while setting the stage for a soaring Grant Green-inspired Bernard guitar solo. "Back Channel" spotlights a dirty multi-octave fuzz tone by Bernard with the fearless rhythm duo of Kalb and Patrou catapulting Bernard to oscillate between blues forms with intervallic fretboard work. The opening of "Raffle" invites the perfect hip-hop sample before twang guitar intersperses with Ben Stivers on organ and Skerik's blazin' baritone sax.
"Blue Chenille" is a dreamy cinematic number overlaid by Spaghetti Western funk, languorous slide, and wavering Rhodes piano chords by Stivers. A combo of grunge and funk, "Grunk" finds Jay Rodriguez on rapturous baritone sax while rounding it out with an adventurous tenor solo. Bernard dives into his pedalboard toolbox as the band teeters on the edge about to go off the rails. John Medeski eases into Freelance Subversives on the medium tempo gospel-tinged "Clafunj," where the band gives a subtle nod to WAR's "Low Rider."
The title track "Freelance Subversives" is a four-on-the-floor disco vamp filled out by guitar loops, analog synth explorations, and flute flurries. "Lifer" introduces elements of the 60's with twangy guitars, Farfisa organ, and film music overtones with "Sly Stone Rhythm Ace" drum machine underpinning the groove. "Garage A" harkens back to the days of Bernard's band Pleasure Drones with Jeff Hanley and Eric Kalb. The addition of John Medeski commanding the B3 in a manner only he can manifest allows for a haunting swamp jam to slowly ignite.
"Skillset" brings back Rodriguez for an anthemic A-section alongside Bernard and Eric Finland on organ. "Skillset" emulates why Rodriguez is considered one of NYC's finest. Freelance Subversives caps off with "We The People," a track Bernard wrote when he first started working with Robert Walter's 20th Congress, and with members of Galactic. "We The People" is a staple of Bernard's live repertoire and finally finds a home on record with Freelance Subversives. The hopeful vibes offer the belief that humanity will survive and prosper as we unite through inspiring music.
Along with thousands of other NYC-based artists, Will Bernard keeps his head held up high knowing that the power of music prevails and artists will again perform in music venues, at festivals, and the like. His acclaimed career of collaborating with a "Who's Who" of the jazz world and beyond with artists such as Herbie Hancock and the Head Hunters, Tom Waits, Dr. John, John Scofield, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Charlie Hunter, Booker T. Jones, Galactic, Greyboy Allstars, T.J. Kirk, and others will continue in pace with pre-COVID times. Until then, Bernard lends an uplifting soundtrack for us all to get down to while we stay safe and healthy.
Freelance Subversives was released in May 2020 at the height of the pandemic in New York City. While the world undergoes monumental changes across industries, including every aspect of the music scene, recorded music is one powerful way artists are able to continue to fill our lives with joy.