“When you write music and bring it in to have other people form it,” muses GRAMMY-nominated guitarist Will Bernard, “you never know what’s going to happen.” It’s a truth learned over many years of recording as a leader, not to mention high-profile work with the Stanton Moore Trio, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, Revelator (with Bill Laswell), John Medeski’s Mad Skillet (with members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band), T.J. Kirk (with Charlie Hunter) and many more. Bernard’s projects range from the funk-oriented Freelance Subversives of 2020 to the lithe, swinging organ jazz of Just Like Downtown, Out & About, and the 2021 trio outing Ancient Grains. It was on another of those earlier efforts, Directions to My House from 2004, that Bernard first documented his effective chemistry in a trio setting with drummer and fellow California native Ches Smith. Now a widely acclaimed leader in his own right, Smith brought just the right fresh perspective, that way of making “you never know” work decisively in the music’s favor.
That trio, with Smith and bassist Devin Hoff, remained a creative touchstone and source of pride for Bernard. A studio reunion was long in the offing, and with the vibrant new album Pond Life it has arrived — with the sought-after Chris Lightcap (Regina Carter, Craig Taborn) fulfilling Hoff’s role on upright and electric bass. But in true “you never know” spirit, Bernard also recruited two eminent musicians — alto saxophonist Tim Berne and pianist/organist John Medeski — to expand the ensemble sound and the improvisational space throughout this program of original compositions. “What Pond Life represents,” says Bernard, “is my desire to document material that is more in a ‘new music’ vein that has always been part of my work, even if it’s not usually associated with my career direction.” With characteristic modesty, Bernard is alluding to performance credits with the likes of Don Cherry, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Tom Waits, Ben Sidran, Dr. John, Booker T. Jones, Idris Muhammad, and many others.
Bernard featured Medeski not only on Freelance Subversives but also on his 2008 release Blue Plate Special. He met Lightcap on gigs with the celebrated Henry Butler/Steven Bernstein Hot 9. And Berne, a close associate of Ches Smith, happens to live near Bernard in Brooklyn; the two became friendly during nights out hearing bands live in the neighborhood. There’s an electricity to the sound of their unison lines and improvised forays on Pond Life, alertness and drive, and readiness to push the envelope.
The title Pond Life stems from childhood: Bernard’s experiences on field trips, learning about paramecium and hydra hidden in swampy ecosystems but also enjoying “the dreamy afternoon of sun-drenched water lilies,” he writes. Nature on this level made a huge impression — so much so that Bernard has given the title “Pond Life” to three different songs. The one on Pond Life is actually “Pond Life 3,” a complex creation featuring Berne but not Medeski, centering on wild, tricky unisons of alto, guitar, and bass.
There’s an element of dirt and grain, fittingly enough, on Pond Life, with Bernard’s inventive and ever-changing pedalboard populating this musical ecosystem with sonic microbes of all kinds. These creatures weave through the music from start to finish, with wah, ring modulator, and other stompbox fx punctuated in places by soulful slide playing. Lightcap deploys pedals as well on “MoTooz” — a track that puts us “back in the deep recesses of the pond,” Bernard notes. At the bottom, it’s the solidity of the core trio, as captured on “Surds” and “Moving Target,” that underpins the album. But “Lake of Greater Remnants” — which Bernard describes to a tee as “an acoustic guitar-driven quasi-blues that produces a cinematic theme for dual vibrato guitars in octaves” — closes the set with a touch more tranquility, signifying the wide-ranging and colorful bent of Bernard’s artistic vision. ~ © 2022 Fully Altered Media