Guitarist Will Bernard’s musical history is truly versatile and Ancient Grains is his third as a leader for Posi-Tone, the label that tends to favor straight ahead jazz. However, Bernard, a Berkeley CA native and Brooklyn transplant, has recorded with avant –garde trumpeter Don Cherry, worked with Hindustani-influenced Jai Uttal, the political hip-hop group The Coup, and found some commercial success with the 1997 Grammy nominated If Four Was One with the group T.J. Kirk (with Charlie Hunter). Yet, as a leader Bernard embraces soul jazz, eventually garnering another Grammy nomination in 2008 for Party Hats. His previous albums for Posi- Tone are Just Like Downtown (2013) and Out & About (2016), having stepped out for the more experimental Freelance Subversives on Ropeadope in 2020. All of that brings us to this trio recording featuring Sam Yahel on organ and Donald Edwards on drums.
So, as the title suggests, this album leans heavily toward tradition and Bernard indicates that they are playing old instruments – a hollow body guitar from the ‘60s, old Fender amps, a Hammond organ that’s design hasn’t changed since the 1930s, and a standard drum kit. They set forth in Posi-Tone tradition sans pedals or any other gimmicks to make an ‘old school record” along the lines of the familiar organ trio fare that first became popular in the ‘60s that becomes immediately apparent with the funky boogaloo in 6/4 on “Dry Land Tourist,” Edwards especially making his presence felt immediately. The title track hearkens back to the medium tempo swing in ‘50s and ‘60s inspired by Thelonious Monk due not only tempo and swing but the unpredictable nature of its many twists and turns. The buoyant “Five Finger Discount” nods in part to John Abercrombie trio sound on his Timeless album.
“Pleasure Seekers” brings one of the brisker tempos, inspired by George Benson, Bernard leaves plenty of room for Yalel to express lengthy B3 statements and Edwards gets the spotlight for a solo. “Stone Valley” is a warm homage to Bernard’s dad who passed away a year ago with Yalel’s emotive intro setting the tone. “Trilobite” is a tricky one with the bass line starting on the off beat and has some nice two-way conversations between Bernard and Edwards followed by Yalel and Edwards. “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” the one cover, is from Monk’s Underground, a longtime favorite of Bernard. “Mazurka Tree” has some bluesy lines from Bernard, references to Chopin’s mazurkas and odd measures from Ronnie Foster’s Mystic Brew which was later sampled by A Tribe Called Quest – lots going on in that one.
“Temescal” is a burner, and, as with so many of Bernard’s tunes, the melody and chord changes take some unexpected directions. Edwards has another solo spot on the kit midway through. “Right As Rain” deviates from the soul-jazz style somewhat, with swishing, sloshing organ swells to connotate rain along with cymbal flourished and mallet toms. Bernard plays the melody using a slide on a hollow body guitar for an unconventional slide sound that completes these interesting touches.
The trio closes in funk mode with “Wake Up Call” just as they began on the first track, forming bookends of sorts. Of course, it has an odd rhythm which is the defining element that makes this trio, all first-rate players, stand apart from other organ-guitar trios in this same ‘old school’ turf.
- Jim Hynes
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