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Randy Bernsen Heats Up With "Grace Notes"

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Grace Notes marks Bernsen’s return to working on a bigger canvas with another all-star cast.
Randy Bernsen
Grace Notes marks Randy Bernsen’s return to working on a bigger canvas with another all-star cast, including Yellowjackets co-founders Jimmy Haslip and Russell Ferrante, drummers Peter Erskine, Gary Novak and Virgil Donati, keyboardist Scott Kinsey Mac Chew and Colin James, saxophonist Steve Tavaglione, percussionists Luis Conte, Archie Pena and blues harmonica ace Rockin’ Jake. Florida homeboys Othello Molineaux, Bobby Thomas Jr. and Julius Pastorius (Jaco’s son) also make special guest appearances on his 12th album as a leader.

Co-produced by bassist Haslip, Grace Notes travels from a Miles Davis Tutu-era flavored jam to a crackling big band chart with some detours into soul-jazz, smooth jazz, funk, blues, and N’awlins second line along the way. “It’s a collection of the different elements that I do coming together into one project,” says the guitarist, whose first road work was with Blood, Sweat & Tears back in 1977. “And with Jimmy’s guidance and him handpicking some of his L.A. bros for the project, like Kinsey and Novak, Russell Ferrante, Virgil Donati and especially engineer, Rich Breen, it came out great. I couldn’t be more pleased!”

Bill Milkowski describes Grace Notes with eloquence. Bernsen comes out stinging on the opener, a remake of the Yellowjackets’ slow grooving “Black Top” (from 2009’s Dreamland). While Steve Tavaglione conjures up an ominous Miles muted trumpet vibe on EWI, Novak powers the track with his slamming backbeat alongside Haslip’s slap basslines. Co-composer Ferrante provides some funky clavinet work on the bridge and comps in classic soul-jazz fashion on piano throughout. Randy’s slinky guitar solo pushes the envelope both in his note and timbre choices, and Tavaglione takes the piece out with some sinuous soprano sax lines at the tag (continued on CD description page).

An ambitious re-imagining of Freddie Hubbard’s 1970 classic “Red Clay” features some dynamic big band flourishes courtesy of Bernsen’s guitar synth and Tavaglione’s synth horn work. Newcomer Max Boiko also contributes some tasty nuggets on trumpet. Randy shows some facile whammy bar articulation on his solo midway through the piece and also experiments with touches of harmonizer before drummer Erskine engages in a percussive breakdown with Conte’s congas to elevate the proceedings.

“Grace,” underscored by Donati’s super slick fills and heavy funk undercurrent, has Bernsen deftly chording the engaging melody in fingerstyle fashion while a triumverate of keyboard players (Kinsey on organ, Colin James on Fender Rhodes, Mac Chew on synths) lays down a thick cushion underneath. For an added treat, percussionist Archie Pena whistles the memorable solo in unison with Randy’s nylon string acoustic guitar lines. “Archie is one of the best drummers I have ever worked with,” says Bernsen. “He’s just one of these musical giants. We did a gig for five years every weekend together and he never failed to amaze me. He’d always come up whistling my melodies on the gig. I think he knew my music better than I did. So I wanted to feature him whistling on one, just blowing, a la Toots Thielemans.”

The exotic “Indian Rivers” opens with a flourish of sitar before Bernsen and Kinsey navigate the intricate head on guitar and Rhodes, respectively. Erskine provides his signature groove on this powerful number, which gradually morphs into a Latin-tinged romp highlighted by a percussive breakdown by conguero Conte. Bernsen also turns in a killer clean-toned first-take guitar solo here while Erskine adds a brilliant solo of his own to kick things up a notch.

Randy’s reworking of the Beatles’ “She’s A Woman” (a tune which Jeff Beck also took liberties with on his 1975 fusion classic, Blow By Blow) has a decided country-bluegrass flavor with the guitarist delivering some Albert Lee-styled chicken picking on his Fender Telecaster. Guest Rockin’ Jake also delivers some down home harmonica work on this clever cover. “I’ve had a special spot in my heart for the Beatles since I was 12 years old or so,” says Randy. “Throughout the years I’ve always done one or two Beatles song in my show, and I started doing this kind of slap picking country-ish thing on this song a little while ago. After I recorded my version I went back and listened to what Beck did on his. As always, he’s the master. But I love how this came out.”

The hard-hitting “Blues Traveler,” driven by Julius Pastorius’ shuffle groove, has Bernsen stinging in Robben Ford fashion while Othello turns in a typically brilliant pans solo and bassist Haslip cuts loose on a solo of his own. Young trumpeter Boiko also contributes a bright burst of high notes in his solo while DJ Torin Lawson adds some unique colors and textures on this slamming number

“Freddie’s Conversion” is an organ-fueled number with a N’awlins second line feel, courtesy of Novak, that sounds like a cross between The Meters and Eddie Harris. “That’s basically Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Mr. Clean,’” Randy reveals. “That was a real collaboration between Scott Kinsey and Mac Chew on keyboards. Novak also plays great on this track and Tav’s soprano solo was awesome! I mean, that’s what a release is all about. And then Haslip finally gets a chance to burn on this track and I think he smoked it. It’s a fun song.”

The collection closes on a dynamic note with “Malibu Man,” Bernsen’s homage to his former bandleader, the late Joe Zawinul, a longtime resident of Malibu, California. Former Weather Reporter Robert Thomas Jr. turns in some scintillating percussion work on this percolating number while Kinsey channels his inner Joe in his synth work here.

Easily his most impressive and personal project since the ‘80s, Bernsen’s star-studded Grace Notes has the veteran guitarist-composer covering a myriad of musical bases with confidence, swag and the chops to back it up.

This story appears courtesy of Kari-On Productions.
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