An expansive guitarist who is equally comfortable playing funk, blues, and many strains of jazz, Will Bernard is a first-call studio sideman, touring musician, and bandleader.
With a distinctive rounded, warm, yet bitingly percussive tone, he is adept at virtually any musical style he chooses to play, ranging from jazz and blues to R&B, funk, and hip-hop. His work has appeared on dozens of recordings by artists ranging from Don Cherry to Stanton Moore. Bernard made his leader debut with the star-studded Medicine Hat in 1998. His proper critical breakthrough arrived after the release of his fourth album, Party Hats -- another large all-star ensemble date for Palmetto Records in 2007. A year later, Blue Plate Special showcased a quartet that included organist John Medeski. After signing with West Coast jazz label Posi-Tone, Bernard led a funky jazz quartet that included saxophonist John Ellis for 2013's Just Like Downtown 2016's Out & About.
Bernard was born in Berkeley, California, in 1959. He studied guitar and piano from an early age with Dave Creamer, Art Lande, and Julian White. A bit later, he developed an interest in classical music composition. He received a B.A. in music from UC Berkeley, where he studied with Andrew Imbrie. Bernard worked with many musicians in the Bay Area after graduating, and in the 1980s joined high school classmate Peter Apfelbaum's Hieroglyphics Ensemble and made his recorded debut with them backing Don Cherry on his 1989 outing Multikulti. During the early to mid-'90s, Bernard toured and recorded four albums with Apfelbaum's group with 1991's Signs of Life on Antilles. He also worked with Jai Uttal and political hip-hop ensemble the Coup and vanguard composer/clarinetist Beth Custer. Bernard co-founded the jazz rock fusion band T.J. Kirk with Charlie Hunter. They released two albums for Warner Bros. including the Grammy-nominated If Four Was One in 1997, produced by longtime collaborator Lee Townsend.
Bernard formed a new band and signed a solo deal with Antilles. In 1998, the label issued Medicine Hat by the Will Bernard 4-Tet who included Rob Burger on Hammond B-3 organ and accordion, T.J. Kirk drummer Scott Amendola, and bassist John Shifflett. Custer also contributed to several cuts. He spent the next several years touring, and working live and in the studio with Custer and Hunter. In 2000, he formed his own Dreck to Disk label and released the quartet offering Motherbug with an entirely new band that included organist/keyboardist Michael Bluestein, bassist Keith McArthur, and drummer Jan Jackson. Jazz critics were nearly beside themselves in praising the guitarist's innovative approach to soul-jazz quartet setting. In 2003, the guitarist's played on Giving Up the Ghost, the debut album by Greyboy Allstar/San Francisco native Robert Walter's 20th Congress just before he moved to New Orleans. That same year, T.J. Kirk reunited for the Ropeadope date Talking Only Makes It Worse. A year later, Bernard released the trio date Directions to My House on Dreck to Disk. In 2006, the ever-restless Bernard joined Galactic drummer Stanton Moore's solo group for the album III on Telarc, and began touring with them. In 2007, after dreaming of New York for years, Bernard left the Bay Area for Brooklyn. He recorded Sketchy as a member of organist Wil Blades' sextet (the group also included drummer Idris Muhammad). In late 2007, Bernard signed to Palmetto Records and cut Party Hats, leading a large revolving cast that included Blades, saxophonist Cochemea Gastelum, and Apfelbaum. The set sold respectably and garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Bernard followed almost immediately with Blue Plate Special, leading a quartet with Moore, Andy Hess, and John Medeski.
Over the next four years, Bernard toured the country and recorded two more albums with Moore. He was also invited to play on Tom Waits' Bad as Me. Afterward, the guitarist formed a trio with Blades and drummer Simon Lott; this group issued Outdoor Living on Dreck to Disk late in 2011. The following year, Bernard joined pianist/composer/vocalist Ben Sidran's studio band on Don't Cry for No Hipster. It was during these sessions that the guitarist met and connected with saxophonist John Ellis. After signing to the Los Angeles-based Posi-Tone Records in early 2013, Bernard formed a jazz quartet with Ellis, drummer Rudy Royston, and organist Brian Charette and released the acclaimed Just Like Downtown; its most popular number was a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Dancing Days. The group undertook a nationwide club tour. Bernard resumed session work in the aftermath and over the next couple of years played on recordings by Sparkler, Icepack Jackson, and Charette.
On his next Posi-Tone outing, Bernard expanded his lineup to a quintet. Retaining Ellis and Charette, he recruited bassist Ben Allison and drummer Allison Miller to replace the ever-occupied Royston for Posi-Tone. The end result, Out & About, appeared during the early spring of 2016. That year, Bernard also played guitar on Charette's Once & Future. In 2017, the guitarist rejoined Sidran for Picture Him Happy, and toured in the pianist's band. In 2018, Bernard joined Medeski's neo-psych jazz-funk quartet Mad Skillett to play on their manic, soulful self-titled offering. The band also included two all-star New Orleanians, sousaphonist Kirk Joseph and drummer Terrence Higgins. Over the next two years, Bernard worked with many artists on the road and also played in a live version of Bill Laswell's Revelator with Apfelbaum on saxes and drummer Aaron Johnston.
In May 2020, Bernard released Freelance Subversives on Ropeadope, a large-scale work featuring two bands and ten rotating sidemen including Medeski, Eric Finland, and Ben Stivers on organs and keyboards, saxophonists Skerik (Eric Walton) and Jay Rodriguez, bassists Ben Zwerin and Jeff Hanley, percussionist Moses Patrou, and drummer Eric Kalb. Given its release at the height of a global pandemic, it won little press notice; the label re-released it that fall to stellar reviews. ~ Matt Collar & Thom Jurek