Peter Bernstein

What Comes Next
(Smoke Sessions)

Peter Bernstein is attempting to lead the way through pandemic uncertainty with a rarity: an album recorded in real-time with an ensemble—face masks and social distancing in effect. In late June, a quartet worked through several of the guitarist’s originals, along with some standards and a previously unrecorded calypso tune by Sonny Rollins.

The opener, “Simple As That,” is a Bernstein tune he first recorded in 2003. Perhaps it’s fitting to open a new pandemic-era album with a reminder of how things used to be. The guitarist’s trademark sound and phrasing are clear and present, his impeccable timing resonating with the humming groove established by the luxury bass/drums combo of Peter Washington and Joe Farnsworth. Sullivan Fortner, though, is the X-factor, his unorthodox textural pianism conjuring wisps of Bernstein’s longtime collaborator, Brad Mehldau. But it’s an old torch song seemingly made for this time, “We’ll Be Together Again,” where Bernstein reveals his true vintage. The ballad cruises just bright enough to guard against sentimentality, resulting in an optimistic buoyancy. Bernstein is forging ahead like he always has: Leaning into what was once—and still is—worthy, establishing a foundation to spring into parts unknown.