Will Bernard's Blue Plate Special
features a veritable supergroup of modern jazz, whose diverse talents on their respective instruments complements their collective experience and, perhaps more importantly, the range of material supplied by the bandleader. On paper, it looks too good to work, but work it does and splendidly at that.
"Baby Goats" may sound, at first, like a vintage variation on composer John Medeski's work with Medeski, Martin and Wood, but as Stanton Moore's syncopation deepens and Andy Hess' circular bass pattern widens, it becomes ever easier to hear the natural empathy within this lineup. And this opener sets a tone for the CD: Bernard is more or less visible depending on the needs of the tune and its arrangement: he demonstrates no discernible need to spotlight himself.
Then again, why wouldn't any honest musician (and a savvy producer like Matt Balitsaris) want to leverage the skill and feel of players like New Orleans' Moore, a member of Galactic as well as leader of his own trio and bassist Hess, who, before joining (and recently departing) Gov't Mule, did an extended stint with John Scofield in his latter Uberjam days. Whether Will Bernard composed these originals with this band specifically in mind (he collaborates with his comrades on the meditative title song), the foursome certainly shapes the songs to their individual personalities.
Equally significantly, in his composing Bernard exhibits all the variety he commands on the guitar, mixing things up in unpredictable combinations. "Magpie," for instance, is fairly conventional funk, tightened up in the extreme by each musician, including Bernard who also deigns to toss in some fluid lines to heighten the effect. Acoustic bottleneck sounds introduce "Frontwinder" prior to the slide textures turning electric over a rocking vamp.
Bernard takes a backseat at the outset of "Blister," yet there's no mistaking the squalling likes of his contribution mid-track and it sends the rest of the performance off in a different direction, only to be succeeded by the off-kilter dreamlike mood of the succeeding track. The refrain of "Gen Pop," allows the drummer to demonstrate muscular facility on his kit, albeit ever so briefly, illustrating the seamless quality to these proceedings: Medeski is as well schooled in the tradition of jazz as Bernard and equally open to unconventional methods in writing and playing, not to mention their mutual fondness for gospel evident in the closing inclusion of "How Great Thou Art."
Consequently, even if, on "Gonzo," Blue Plate Special sounds overly familiar, especially to followers of these players, Will Bernard's own experience as member of groups as diverse as T.J. Kirk (with Charlie Hunter) and Robert Walter's 20th Congress, stands him in good stead. At the very point this CD might become truly predictable, "Awanna" finds the quartet downshifting, just prior to the appropriately titled "Fastfun," where the guitarist struts his stuff most decisively. In doing so, Bernard effectively sets the stage for Medeski, Moore and Hess, offering a gesture of humility as well as musical logic that permeates this whole album.