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(Palmetto Records 2137 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/12/2008)
The popularity of the jam band scene has opened the doors for a number of performers on the periphery of jazz to reach newer, more rock-oriented audiences. While groups like Phish came from a rock background, performers like Medeski, Martin and Wood whose breeding is jazz, have also enjoyed popularity among the jam-band set.
This week, we have an instrumental album that is somewhere between the rock and jazz varieties of jam band music, and is rhythmically squarely in the funk and groove school. It's the latest by guitarist Will Bernard called Blue Plate Special.
Will Bernard grew up California's Bay Area, and graduated from the same high school in Berkeley that yielded guitarist Charlie Hunter and jazz artists like Craig Handy, Peter Apfelbaum and Joshua Redman. Bernard recorded with Apfelbaum's Hieroglyphic Ensemble, and also appeared on a 1989 recording by veteran jazz innovator Don Cherry. Along the way, Bernard performed with New Age world music artist Jai Uttal, and was a founding member of a quartet called T.J. Kirk, named after Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rasaan Roland Kirk, and which showed their eclectic mix of jazz and funk influences. More recently Bernard has been leading his own groups including one called Motherbug, and also recorded with drummer Stanton Moore on his CD III, which we featured on this album review series in 2006. That recording was somewhat similar in sound, with a strong rhythmic groove approach and jazzy playing. Bernard also appeared on Moore's 2008 released Emphasis on Parenthesis and released a CD of his own called Party Hats, last year.
Now Will Bernard is out with Blue Plate Special, and Moore returns the favor, anchoring the groove with his drums. The rest of the group on Blue Plate Special includes John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood, on the various, mostly vintage electric keyboards, and Andy Hess on bass.
This is definitely another groove-oriented record, with the tracks based on driving, mostly funky beats, and not a lot of emphasis on instrumental flash. That is not to say that the recording is lacking in musically interesting ingredients. Often, the band can veer off into little twists and turns with the beat, and John Medesky has a panoply of keyboard sounds, from the basic Hammond B-3 organ to quirky distorted sounds. The music has a decidedly retro flavor, with grooves that hint at James Brown, Motown, New Orleans, and can, at times, conjure some of the novelty instrumentals of the early 1960s. It's all quite well done and definitely infectious.
Leading off is one of the strong, groove style tracks, called Baby Goats. John Medesky's keyboards take more of the center stage than Bernard's guitars, not that there's anything wrong with that. <<>>
Also in the funk vein is Magpie which has a kind of boogaloo beat that sometimes hints as James Brown, but often throws curves both rhythmically and harmonically. <<>>
The title piece, Blue Plate Special is something of a departure. There's a vaguely exotic texture to the music, with Medesky playing some acoustic piano. <<>> Bernard gets a chance for a rather jazzy guitar solo. <<>>
Another interesting turn is taken on Blister which can evoke the Afrobeat rhythms of the late Fela Kuti. <<>>
Bernard plays what sounds like a lap steel guitar, giving a little twang to the piece called Genpop, which can sometimes hint at the old mood music of the early 1960s. <<>>
For sheer energy, a track called Fast Fun keeps things moving, while the Bernard and Medesky each get a chance for a good solo. <<>>
Frontwinder is a fun piece that mixes things up quite a bit with acoustic and very electric turns by both Bernard and Medesky. With its New Orleans style groove, the tune sometimes seems to twist around on itself. <<>>
The CD ends with an interesting choice for a cover song, the traditional hymn, How Great Though Art, which Medesky gives the full African American Gospel organ treatment, while Bernard plays a bluesy slide guitar. <<>>
Blue Plate Special the latest CD by guitarist Will Bernard is a fun, danceable album of groove-oriented instrumental music likely to find fans among jam-band aficionados, especially given the presence of John Medesky, of Medesky, Martin and Wood. While there is not a great deal of impressive instrumental virtuosity on the CD, Blue Plate Special is not only infectious rhythmically, but full of interesting touches, including compositions that don't always go where you expect them, and clever instrumental arrangements and combinations of sounds. It's a great band who sound as if they are definitely having a fun time together, something that I think very much comes across to the listener.
Our grade for sound quality, however, is not so high. We give it about a "C Plus." The overall sound is dull and overly compressed into one more or less constant volume. I'm guessing that it was a misguided effort to emulate the crummy sound of some of the recordings from the early 1960s.
Sonics notwithstanding, Will Bernard's new CD Blue Plate Special is a great album for when you want to get up and dance, or do some serious stationary grooving.
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