Fort Lauderdale-based guitarist Randy Bernsen, a respected figure among performers on the national jazz scene now three decades removed from the dizzying promise of his major-label debut, is all in on his adventurous new album, "Grace Notes."
Scraping together money made onstage, working as a commercial pilot and in real estate, Bernsen saved money for years to fund the project, which came to life thanks to a dose of mortality.
"When I turned 60 last year, I said, 'Man, I'm gonna go for it,'" Bernsen recalls. "I want to do this for me, for my music and for the people I've played with. I'm going to hire the best cast in L.A., and around here. I am going for it. The knob is on 11. That's all I can say."
The result is an ambitious collection of eight songs, five written by Bernsen, that puts the soaring jazz-fusion inventiveness that his cult of fans remember from his residency at Tavern 213 into an earthy, blues setting that drips with South Florida humidity.
It is distinguished by salutes to two acts that have had a strong influence on Bernsen in the Snarky Puppy-style interpretation of the Freddie Hubbard classic "Red Clay" and a remarkable take on the Beatles' "She's a Woman," a swampy groove fueled by South Florida harmonica charmer Rockin' Jake.
New York-based jazz critic Bill Milkowski, author of "Jaco: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Jaco Pastorius," contributes liner notes for "Grace Notes," calling it Bernsen's "most impressive and personal project since the '80s."
The album, dedicated to his late friend, South Florida guitarist Dave Shelley, is Bernsen's 10th, the first since 2011's "App Teaser," which featured John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood.
It has been 30 years since Bernsen, who attended Plantation High School and the University of Miami and started playing South Florida clubs at age 16, staked a claim on the national jazz scene with the MCA Records release "Music for Planets, People and Washing Machines." The critically heralded album featured an all-star lineup including Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock, Peter Erskine and Bob James, as well as locals Bobby Thomas Jr. and Othello Molineaux.
"Grace Notes" shares some creative DNA with that record: Erskine, Thomas and Molineaux return, joined by Jaco Pastorius' son Julius on drums. Other nationally known performers include Scott Kinsey, Gary Novak, Steve Tavaglione and Luis Conte.
But the biggest influence comes from the friendship started with then-labelmate at MCA Records Jimmy Haslip, founder of the Yellowjackets. Haslip, the bassist who went on to perform with Bernsen in the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, is the co-producer of "Grace Notes" — another pivotal decision for Bernsen.
"I've always produced my music, hands-on all the way," Bernsen says. "It was great for me to let go of the reins a little bit and let someone who is just such a creative force lead some of the music. He really brought a sensibility out of me that I couldn't have done myself."
While he's made his name in the traditions of jazz and fusion, Bernsen says his experimentation with the blues palette should surprise no one familiar with his reverence of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. And the gumbo he's serving on "Grace Notes" is all round him, he says.
"I remember years ago talking to Pat Metheny, who is a good friend, telling him that I was thinking of moving out to Los Angeles," Bernsen says. "And he was like, 'Bro, Why would you want to do that? You guys have got a serious thing there.' He meant the music: It's Caribbean. New Orleans is right down the street. It's funky. Why go and be part of something else? It was an interesting observation."
Along with random gigs in Europe and Asia, Bernsen has been sharing music new and old every Tuesday at Qbar Burgers & Blues in Fort Lauderdale.
A Kickstarter campaign for "Grace Notes" was a bust, so Bernsen is trying to recoup some of his savings by making the album (along with his other releases) available via Pledge Music, which sends most of the proceeds back to him. You can find it at PledgeMusic.com/Projects/RandyBernsen. More information can be found at RandyBernsen.com.
Randy Bernsen will perform 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22, at Qbar Burgers & Blues, 2376 N. Federal Highway, in Fort Lauderdale. Admission is free. Call 954-565-2299 or go to QbarFL.com.