Conscious Pilot: Randy Bernsen

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GUITAR CENTER: Guitarist Randy Bernsen flies high with a new CD, but his Fort Lauderdale roots keep him grounded.

By Bob Weinberg
Portrait by James Arbogast

“Bro, if those walls could talk…” says guitarist Randy Bernsen, sitting on the sun-dappled patio of his three-story house in Fort Lauderdale in early May, indicating the unassuming duplex next door. His residence for more than 25 years, the building played host to some of the greatest contemporary jazz musicians of the era. Joe Zawinul, Michael Hedges, Marc Johnson, Toots Thielemans and Bernsen’s close friend and mentor, Jaco Pastorius, were among the remarkable lineup that either stayed with Bernsen or jammed into the wee hours on the back patio, many of them having performed earlier at the nearby Musicians Exchange. The storied Bachelors III nightclub, where fretless-bass innovator Pastorius and guitar great Pat Metheny held court, was just blocks away.

While he’s surrounded by reminders of the past, Bernsen, who also flies jet planes as a contract pilot, keeps his eyes on the horizon. He just finished recording a new album, Grace Notes, with former Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip, who lends his instrumental and production prowess to the project. A showcase for Bernsen’s color- and texture-laden leads and swirling compositions, the album also reflects the guitarist’s humility and taste. Rather than showing off his prodigious chops with excessive shredding, he serves each song first and foremost. Nonetheless, Bernsen’s fiery blues licks, extensive jazz vocabulary and smart application of synth effects remain at the heart of this music, whether he’s boogalooing through the Yellowjackets’ “Black Top,” working out on Freddie Hubbard’s riff-rich “Red Clay” or layering a South Asian shimmer onto his own swift-moving “Indian Rivers.”

The album’s credits are stocked with Haslip’s A-list Los Angeles colleagues, including saxophonist Steve Tavaglione and drummer Peter Erskine, the latter having played on Bernsen’s 1985 debut album, Music for People, Planets and Washing Machines. But Bernsen also recruited talent closer to home, including steel pan virtuoso Othello Molineaux and percussionist Robert Thomas Jr. of Weather Report fame (both are longtime friends). Bernsen also called on next-generation South Florida jazz stars: keyboardist Colin James, trumpeter Max Boiko and drummer Julius Pastorius, the son of his old friend. Surprisingly, Haslip was the one who suggested Bernsen hire locally. “I thought I was gonna do a complete session out of town,” Bernsen relates. “But [Haslip] really spearheaded the idea. There’s only one Othello. There’s only one Bobby Thomas. And with great honor and pleasure do I bring Julius into this thing.”

“Randy Bernsen’s fiery blues licks, extensive jazz vocabulary and smart application of synth effects remain at the heart of his music.”

Bernsen was 17 when he met Julius’ dad, who was two years older than Bernsen. Having moved with his family from Boston to Plantation two years earlier, Bernsen played in local bands at clubs such as The Flying Machine in Fort Lauderdale and the Sandpiper Bar in Dania Beach. He and Pastorius became friends, finding common ground in music, sports and family. Each had boisterous brothers and could count on a meal from the other’s mom. Pastorius became a fixture on the University of Miami campus, where Bernsen studied in the early ’70s. Before long, the bassist was setting the jazz world ablaze, recording and touring with Metheny, Weather Report and Joni Mitchell, as well as with his own Word of Mouth ensemble. But fame was not without its costs, and Bernsen observed the toll it—and substance abuse—took on his friend’s increasingly fragile mental health.

A couple of years before his tragic death, Pastorius played on Bernsen’s debut recording, bringing along Word of Mouth drummer Erskine. Knowing that keyboardist Herbie Hancock was in town for a concert, Bernsen called the jazz giant at his hotel to ask if he’d play on his record. Bernsen sent Hancock a cassette of the music, and he was impressed enough to agree. At one point, Bernsen recalls, Hancock pulled him aside. “He went, ‘Listen, I’m not here because of Jaco. I’m here because I really like the music.’ And if that’s the last compliment I get from anybody, I’m done. I’m finished.”

A boyish 60, the guitarist is a long way from being finished. In addition to Grace Notes, he’s set to release a second volume of music recorded live at Fort Lauderdale’s Tavern 213 and a follow-up to his AppTeaser EP with his organ trio. And while the live music scene in South Florida is nowhere near as robust as it once was, he still gigs at Qbar Burgers & Blues and 33rd Street Wine Bar in Fort Lauderdale.

Having performed at jazz festivals from Morocco to Malaysia to Mexico, Bernsen is always excited about his next destination. A self-described “travel brat,” he inherited his wanderlust from his dad and mom, a pilot and a flight attendant, respectively. Soon after the release of his debut album, he visited Rimini at the invitation of an Italian musician. He’s been returning to the picturesque city on the Adriatic Coast for 30 years now. On one such occasion, he spied a roadside signpost with several destinations listed—including Fort Lauderdale. “I went, ‘What?!’” he says, incredulous at the coincidence. “It was only years later that I learned that the place is the sister city of Fort Lauderdale.”

With the unexpected around every corner, travel is its own reward for Bernsen. He constantly adds new colors to his musical palette, from the diamond sparkle of sun on the Straits of Gibraltar to the velvet tranquility of the night sky over San Miguel de Allende. “And isn’t it just like jazz?” he posits. “It’s the excitement of taking an old song and making it new.”

Originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue.