Steven Bernstein Premiers Guitar-Centric Quartet in New York

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David Tronzo (left) Larry Campbell, Steven Bernstein and Steve Cardenas of Blue Campfire perform in New York City on March 31. (Photo: Peter Parrella)

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It is always exciting to witness the birth of a band; exciting for audience members and band members alike. Blue Campfire came together because trumpeter-arranger-bandleader Steven Bernstein found some time in between ongoing commitments to his Sex Mob, Millennial Territory Orchestra and Bernstein-Butler Hot 9 to pursue an idea that had been percolating in his arranger’s brain for quite a while—trumpet, three guitars, no drums, no bass. Bernstein, a lifelong fan of guitar, found the notion too stimulating to ignore.

Considering the caliber of the three guitarists he recruited for this premiere on March 31 at the Greenwich House Music School in the West Village, it was a must-see for guitar aficionados.

Slide guitar innovator David Tronzo, Bernstein’s former bandmate in The Lounge Lizards and the ’90s downtown improvising trio Spanish Fly, rarely plays in New York anymore since moving to New Hampshire in 2002 and taking on a position in the guitar department at the Berklee College of Music, where he was recently named a full professor. His technical command of his Silvertone axe is as awe-inspiring as his improvisational daring, and one of his specialties, as he demonstrated on at least a couple of tunes, is prepared guitar, which offers him an uncanny range of textures, tones and otherworldly sounds.

Guitarist Larry Campbell, Bernstein’s bandmate for eight years in the late drummer/vocalist Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band, brought a solid rhythmic foundation and stinging lead voice on his Fender Telecaster, while Steve Cardenas, a former member of Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band and current member of John Patitucci’s Electric Guitar Quartet, played his warm-toned Gibson ES-335 with masterful aplomb, generating intriguing textures.

Together these stellar guitarists blended intuitively and orchestrally on an eclectic program ranging from the Grateful Dead to Monk to Duke Ellington to The Band. They played these familiar tunes as casually and joyously as they might have as youths, sitting around a campfire jamming. (Hence the band name.)

In a nice bit of serendipity, the very space where this Uncharted Music Series concert took place was where Bernstein and Tronzo met and played together for the first time back in November of 1984. Indeed, they played on this night like they brought 32 years of shared life experience to the bandstand.

The four opened their set with a bluesy meditation on the Grateful Dead’s “Black Peter” (from 1970’s Workingman’s Dead) that had Bernstein’s melodic muted trumpet covering Jerry Garcia’s vocals. Tronzo’s unmistakable slide voice pierced through the interwoven guitar textures with rare authority on his solo while Campbell provided a frame for the tune with his tremolo-tinged open chording, arpeggiating and resounding bass notes. Cardenas followed with a fluid solo that stood out from the six-string choir in both tone and attack.

The four kindred spirits next combined on a gorgeous reading of “Monk’s Mood” before heading into a spirited N’awlins-flavored rendition of the traditional “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” that had Bernstein pulling out his best Dave Bartholomew licks.

Campbell played some chank-a-chank guitar on a Lee “Scratch” Perry tune that had Tronzo using a plastic cup as a slide for percussive effect.

They also conjured up a bit of Americana on “Helmland,” Bernstein’s moving tribute to Helm, then stretched out in adventurous fashion on Bernstein’s ambitious suite “Vision,” which he wrote a few years back as a commissioned work for a Brazilian candomblé orchestra. Tronzo prepared his instrument on this piece by weaving a wooden stick through the strings to obtain a world of sounds ranging from oil drum to kora to oud.

Switching gears, the group jumped into Ellington’s jaunty mid-tempo swinger “Love You Madly,” with Campbell providing the all-important rhythmic chunking on his Tele. And they closed it out with a bluesy rendition of “Jemima Surrender” (from The Band’s eponymous 1969 album) that had Tronzo delivering some toe-curling slide licks and Cardenas cranking out a touch of distortion for some extra bite on his solo.

It’s safe to say that nothing like this has been done before. Three guitars and trumpet without a rhythm section is like a high-wire act without a net. The division of labor between the three six-stringers was intuitive and telepathic throughout, and the improvisational element was off the charts.

Picture Great Guitars (Charlie Byrd, Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis) meets the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Talks are already in this works with a highly regarded label to record this singular ensemble. By then the chemistry of this Blue Campfire will no doubt have gone up a notch or two from this maiden voyage. Stay tuned.

(Note: To read an Editors’ Pick review of Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein’s 2014 album Viper’s Drag, click here.)

Bill Milkowski



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August 2019
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