An Interview: Will Bernard
J-man: Thanks for taking the time to do this.
J-man: In my opinion you’re playing with some of the top artists on the scene. At what point did you realize that your projects would come together in the fashion that they have?
Will: Let’s see, I started going down to Jazz Fest in New Orleans about… I think eight years ago. That’s where I first started plating with Robert Walter and Stanton Moore and that became a long term relationship. I guess, I mean; there has been a lot of stuff before that, including the Charlie Hunter project.
J-man: So the point when you started playing with Robert Walter and Stanton Moore is when you realized that your project would come together in that regard?
Will: Yeah, I guess that’s a hard question… I mean that was the first thing that came to mind for what I am doing right now. Just going down to Jazz Fest and sitting in with people and playing with people led to a whole new group of associations.
J-man: How much does it validate you as a musician to have people like Stanton Moore, John Medeski & Robert Walter sitting in on your projects and recording with you?
Will: Well, I think they are fine musicians… I think it’s interesting how certain musicians become famous, or more popular than others. I think, well; I’m not sure why that is but I’m not always sure that it’s because they’re so much better than other musicians. But all of those guys you’ve mentioned are some of my favorite musicians, and I’m super happy that they liked my playing, and that I am able to play with them.
J-man: What do you think the benefit is to playing with a rotating cast of musicians?
Will: You mean in my own projects?
Will: Well, I guess if I could I would just have one group, but it’s logistically easier to do it this way for me at this point. Due to people’s schedules and travel considerations. So I have, like you said a revolving cast of people that I use, depending on different situations. It seems to be… It seems to work out pretty well.
J-man: Of the artists you’ve played with who really stands out to you as being special?
Will: Hmmm, special…
J-man: I guess a better way of putting that would be is there anyone that you have played with, that made you say “Wow, this is it.”?
Will: Probably in the most recent years; Dr. Lonnie Smith has been the most amazing musician, I think that I have gotten to play with… a number of times. He’s just a real, deep, amazing musician.
J-man: Who is someone that you would really love to create music with, that has yet to pan out?
Will: That’s a good question. Well, probably some of these great jazz musicians like Paul Motian and Jack DeJohnette, For drummers, um, let’s see… I don’t know, that’s what comes to mind.
J-man: Can you talk a little bit about the jazz greats both past/present, and what they mean to you and your music?
Will: Well, right now I’ve been thinking a lot about Thelonious Monk because I’ve been reading this new book about; Thelonious Monk… And he was probably the first guy that I listened to when I was a teenager that really made me think that jazz might be something that I would want to try and play. Before that, you know, I was listening to rock music and rock oriented music. But, the way he would play is; he would kind of have sort of a visionary way of looking at music, that not just someone playing music. Those are the kind of artists that I get inspired by… it doesn’t matter which category.
J-man: What does improvisation mean to you, and how much is it a part of your playing?
Will: When I solo; I try and make things fresh, as much as I can and not repeat myself. It’s pretty hard to do, but…
J-man: Yeah, I could see that. It’s easy to fall into certain riffs.
Will: Yeah, I try and keep it fresh as much as possible, partly for my own enjoyment… Because I don’t want to hear the same thing (Laughs) over and over. I think, you know, there are different types of improvisation. There’s soloing where you just string together riffs and patterns that you’ve memorized. Then there is a combination of that with trying to develop something new every time you play. Most improvisers do play things that they already know, it’s not just coming up with something completely new all of the time. You know? That would be… Pretty impossible.
J-man: You’re from the West coast, playing a lot of shows on the East coast…
Will: I live in Brooklyn now.
J-man: Right, but you originally came from California, correct?
Will: Yeah, I was from the Bay Area. I grew up in the Bay Area.
J-man: What’s the difference between the two scenes, as far as the West coast and East coast, to you? Or are there any?
Will: Well, if you look at the population density; there are so many more people out here in the New York area, to begin with. So, there’s that and there’s also the fact that there are way more musicians out here. It’s more of a competitive scene, but there’s a lot more going on here. Out on the West coast, especially in the Bay Area there’s… You kind of know everybody, pretty quickly. You know, it’s kind of more of a small town, compared to New York.
J-man: There are parts of the scene where you are a virtual unknown, why do you think that is, and how are you going about changing that?
Will: (Laughs) I wish I knew. I might be destine to be the best kept secret for my whole career, but I hope not (Laughs). Like I said earlier; It’s a matter of… Well, partly being in the right place at the right time. It could be that, um… Well, you know, Medeski, Martin & Wood, they got lucky by being involved with Phish and That whole scene. You know, I saw Medeski, Martin & Wood play at a tiny little club in San Francisco. I think it might have been their first time to San Francisco. They were all kind of “Knitting Factory” guys.
J-man: What do you think of the “Jamband/Festival” Scene? You kind of related Medeski, Martin & Wood to that scene, and I wonder how you feel about it.
Will: Well, I’ve always had good times playing at these festivals. A lot of the time it’s a lot of the people that I know… It’s kind of a party, and you get to see people that you haven’t seen in a while.
J-man: Do you think the festival scene is a productive environment?
Will: You mean for creating music?
J-man: Yes, for creating music.
Will: Well, I think that some of the drawbacks are that it’s always the same groups that seem to play these things every year. There’s not… It seems like there could be more variety, within the musical style and the musical creativity. But yeah, it seems… I don’t know why it wouldn’t be productive. Anything to employ musicians (Laughs) and get people looking especially at music that is improvised (Laughs), I think is great.
J-man: When you’re playing do you find it easier to lead or sit back and take the music as it comes?
Will: Do you mean like; a band leader or being in a band?
Will: We’ll it’s definitely easier to be a sideman. (Laughs) No question.
J-man: What do you prefer?
Will: You know, I like them both. I think if I never led my own band, I would feel like I was missing out on something because, there is nothing like being able to play your own compositions. That’s always been a big thing for me. The excitement of trying out a new song, you know, with somebody.
J-man: As the creator, how does it feel when that kind of comes together, and the other musicians are adding their part to it?
Will: Yeah, when it comes together, it’s amazing. It’s the best experience, you know? I always see it as like; you become a “music-junkie” when you get these kind of highs, you know? When you just want to go back and try to get it again. (Laughs) … And we all go through a lot of hoops trying to get back to these highs that we have experienced, I think. It’s not always easy being a musician… But that’s what keeps you going. But, you know, it’s easier sometimes when you have a regular band, where you can really develop things.
J-man: What’s going through your mind when you are on stage, just “Killing” it? When everything is coming together, and the people in the audience are really into it. What’s going through your head at that time?
Will: Yeah, it’s kind of like; you get that moment… you look around and you can tell everybody else is feeling right there, and you’re hitting that moment we’ve been all trying to find. Basically you not thinking about, like; Did you leave the stove on at home? Or , how am I getting to Minneapolis tomorrow? That can inhibit your playing sometimes.
J-man: Ok, you just mentioned some things that aren’t on your mind. Is it just blank, in the moment with what’s happening, or in idle. What’s going on up there?
Will: That’s a good question. I think, you’re just right in there with the music, and it’s more of a feeling, I think. You get more into the feeling part than the actual intellectual part of it. But then, when you’re really playing well, the intellectual part is also working, saying “Wow, maybe I could try this?” You know? You have to be there saying “Ok, his bridge is coming up” and “What’s the next song?” Things like that, so there’s things happening at the same time. But, for me; it’s almost like, what’s not going through my head (Laughs). Instead of what’s going through my head. Like I was say, it’s more about getting into the feeling.
J-man: How did your most recent project come together? And how do you approach a guy like John Medeski and ask him to record with you?
Will: Well, like I said before; I had met John years before and we have a great deal of mutual friends, going back to the Knitting Factory days. People like Steven Bernstein, Bill Frisell and all of those guys who were kind of really active at that point. Lounge lizards. I had know him before and we were playing at Jazz Ft I think in 2006 with Stanton’s Trio, which is Robert Walter, Stanton Moore and myself. There was one gig at the DBA that Robert Walter couldn’t do and Medeski ended up doing it. And I just… I think, uh… I can’t remember how it worked out but before the gig we ended up hanging out for hours and going and getting crawfish boil and getting to know each other. And, you know, the gig was great. So it wasn’t like; just approaching somebody cool and saying “Do you want to play?”
J-man: What geared you towards those musicians? What made you decide to call up Stanton Moore, Andy Hess and John Medeski and those guys to be on your cd? And how does Andy Hess come into that mix?
Will: We have a lot of mutual friends as well. He has roots in the Bay Area, also. I think I first met him playing with Avi Bortnick who is the guitar player for John Scofield. I had seen him play with John Scofield… He’s just a great, solid bass player, you know? I think I had met him a couple of times after that, and he was just a great cat too. Well, and it was also that the other two had played with him. I didn’t want to get somebody that… I didn’t want to put together something that was like two guys that had never played together, because you never know what’s going to happen with that (Laughs). Sometimes, especially with a drummer and a bass player… If they don’t get along musically then you’re in trouble. So I wanted to get somebody that had played with those two guys.
J-man: When you were putting together that project, beyond getting people that had played together, was there an element of recruiting the best musicians that you could find? In other words, how does a project like that come together, to be what I consider a “super-group” in the end?
Will: Yeah, I mean; a guy like John Medeski is perfect for my music because he comes from a lot of different musical traditions, including twentieth century classical music, jazz, rock, soul music, gospel, you know? And he also utilizes electronics on his instruments in a way that nobody else does. He’s into pedals and dub style effects, you know. So, as far as… Aside from the fact that he’s john Medeski, just musically he is perfect for what I do.
J-man: What’s next for you and your upcoming projects?
Will: I’ll be touring with The Stanton Moore Trio and we’ll also be backing up Anders Osborne*** who has a new record out as well. Also in the month of May we’ll be touring with that project. Hitting Jazz Fest in April and probably some other festivals down that way. The other project that I’m doing is a group called “Some Cat From Japan”, which is all Jimi Hendrix music.
J-man: Really? Who’s involved in that?
Will: Nigel Hall, myself, Ron Johnson, Eric Boulivar and Scott Metzker.
J-man: What is Nigel’s part in that project?
Will: He’s playing keys and he’s like… the singer (Laughs).
J-man: That’s interesting… Nigel singing Hendrix…
Will: Yeah, we’re going back and really trying to go through these Hendrix songs and trying to learn these songs that we have heard our whole life, you know? So it’s just developing. It sort of started out as a one gig thing and then, it looks like we’re playing the Brooklyn Bowl next month and probably playing Jazz Fest. So, we’ll see… the last time I did this kind of thing was T.J. Kirk in the 90’s with Charlie Hunter. We ended up getting two records with Warner Brothers.
J-man: I saw you were nominated for a couple of Grammy’s. That’s not necessarily representative of the fans as much as it is the industry, but how does it feel to be nominated for an award like that?
Will: Well, you feel like someone is listening, you know? (Laughs) I’m not quite sure who… but somebody is. A lot of times you get… like I’ve gotten pretty good press with the critics and the critics tend to like me… Actually, the first time I was in the critics downbeat poll, last year in the “Rising Star” category. (Laughs)
J-man: How do you feel when you see yourself in that category? Do you see yourself as a “rising star”? and what does that even mean?
Will: (Laughs) Yeah, I don’t know… In Downbeat it used to be “talent deserving wider recognition” and then they changed it to “Rising Star”… So, I don’t know. I don’t know what that means but, it’s nice to have somebody… You know, critics don’t always translate into audience and record sales and all that. And same with the Grammy’s; it doesn’t always translate into popularity.
J-man: Will, thank you very much.
Will: Great, thank you so much for doing this.
Will Bernard on Facebook.
Will Bernard's Fan Page.
Stanton Moore Trio.
Will Bernard Projects Live at Highline Ballroom on June 7, 2009.
Will Bernard - guitar
Robert Walter - organ
Stanton Moore - drums
Tim Luntzel - bass
Will Bernard Projects Live at Highline Ballroom on March 26, 2009.
Will Bernard - guitar
John Medeski - keys, melodica
Stanton Moore - drums
Andy Hess - bass