Being a South Floridian means that I got many occasions to see him and hear him and the thrill is no different now than it was in the early 80s. Some things never change.
Now Bernsen has released his twelfth album as a leader and his has all the best players on this album, as well: Julius Pastorius (Jaco’s son), Peter Erskine, Jimmy Haslip (who co-produced “Grace Notes”), Virgil Donati, Scott Kinsey, Luis Conte and more.
The album opens with the Yellowjackets’ “Black Top,” written by Jimmy Haslip and Russell Ferrante who play bass and piano, respectively, on this track. Gary Novak (drums) and Haslip propel the song from the rhythm section.
Most distinctively, Steve Tavaglione channels Miles Davis’ 1990 self with the mimicked muted-trumpet effect. This is how you kick-off an album! Not that I was going anywhere but I was anchored to my seat upon hearing this track that I have loved for decades.
A vivid, even bold, reinvention of Freddie Hubbard’s 1970 stunner “Red Clay” follows. Bernsen tears it up on this one. Peter Erskine is as riveting as he has ever been (and ever shall be) while Trey Henry handles the acoustic bass duties.
Tavaglione’s synth horns and the trumpet of Max Boiko open the piece with a repeat line that gives way to Bernsen’s brilliant guitar. Luis Conte adds the sweet percussion alongside Erskine’s imaginative drumming. Just like any Freddie Hubbard composition, this one smokes.
When Bernsen said that he “wanted to turn the knob to 11,” he wasn’t kidding. He wanted to gather the best and he got the best. He wanted to make a declarative statement and it has been made in a full-throated roar that Randy Bernsen is still around and is still a force with whom the Jazz world must reckon.
“Grace,” the third track of the album, is a Bernsen original and gets the Florida funk in high gear. You’ve got to love it. Bernsen’s cool picking is set against three keyboards from Kinsey, Colin James and Mac Chew. Good God, ya’ll.
Drummer extraordinaire Archie Pena is the whistler on the track. That’s not a euphemism—he really whistles while Virgil Donati sits the drum throne. His role as whistler comes from a five-year collaboration between Bernsen and Pena. According to Bernsen, Pena was always whistling the tunes they were going to play, especially Bernsen’s originals, giving Randy the feeling that Pena knew the music better than Randy did. So, Pena gets to perform his semi-official function as whistler on “Grace.” Fun stuff.
“Indian Rivers” is another Bernsen original work with all the usual suspects in place as Haslip and Erskine man the rhythm section. Kinsey offers a clear vision on the Fender Rhodes as Bernsen paints a colorful picture of the Indian rivers with joyous aplomb that is bright and lively.
Lennon-McCartney’s “She’s Always a Woman” follows after. Dropping the country affectation of the Beatles’ original, Bernsen and Haslip turn on a techno-bluegrass vibe and are joined by Rockin’ Jake on harmonica. A cool reincarnation.
“Blues Traveler” is another Bernsen original. Punchy rhythms and Julius Pastorius’ bit of shuffling set up the steel pan drum, creating a sub-tropical jive that has made South Florida the fun place it is.
Bernsen’s guitar and fascinating sound designs get punctuated by young Boiko’s trumpet brilliance. It is one long, cool groove.
“Freddie’s Conversion” is Bernsen’s reworking of Freddie Hubbard’s “Mr. Clean.” Gary Novak’s creole flavors work so well with Haslip to cook up something spicy. Tavaglione is on sax for the track. Kinsey on the organ and Fender Rhodes flesh out the devilish fun of the song. Together, they all make it happen like Freddie would have liked.
The album concludes with Bernsen’s “Malibu Man” and is a nod-and-a-wink to Joe Zawinful, Bernsen’s old band-leader when Randy was with the Zawinul Syndicate.
Robert Thomas, Jr., once of Weather Report, works his magic on the percussion along with Erskine on the drums turning on the fusion-funk drive that Joe Zawinul loved. Bernsen lays powerful and precise guitar on top of it all and closes the album in a way leaves you wanting more—the hallmark of great music.
“Grace Notes” is full of both Grace and notes. Any recording with this album’s line-up cannot fail, to be sure, but any album which features Randy Bernsen’s compositions, arrangements and artistry is bound for success and admiration. His musicianship is undisputed. His compositional skills are exquisite. “Grace Notes” contains the furious rhythms and hard-hitting melodies that underscore both of those points. Through four decades, Randy Bernsen is still on fire.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl
Visit Randy Bernsen’s website at: http://www.randybernsen.com/
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