Steven Bernstein’s Big Community


Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra recorded four albums of music in four days.

(Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff)

As a ubiquitous figure on the New York scene for more than three decades, trumpeter Steven Bernstein has written arrangements for everyone from the Lounge Lizards and Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band to Lou Reed, Roswell Rudd, Allen Toussaint, Bettye LaVette and Lee “Scratch” Perry.

He has also done an avalanche of arrangements for his own stable of bands, including Spanish Fly, Sexmob, Millennial Territory Orchestra, the Butler-Bernstein Hot 9 and offshoot groups like Blue Campfire, Diaspora Special Edition and Omaha Diner. Add in his work as musical director of the 13-piece Town Hall Ensemble, where he wrote sweeping arrangements behind Senegalese singer-guitarist Baaba Maal, Cuban conguero Pedrito Martinez, singers Eric Mingus, Toshi Regon and Lisa Fischer, and a host of other projects that impresario Hal Willner pulled him in on — like arranging for the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s 1995 film Kansas City; writing arrangements behind singers Bono, Darlene Love, Macy Gray, Donald Fagen, Elvis Costello and Dr. John for Jazz Foundation of America gala fundraising concerts at the Apollo Theater; writing arrangements for Willner-produced tributes to Bill Withers and Doc Pomus at Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park and to Leonard Cohen at Montreal’s Bell Center — and you’d get the idea that Bernstein was, perhaps, the most prolific arranger in show business.

But most of his arrangements have gone undocumented. While many were recorded by Spanish Fly, Sexmob, MTO and the Hot 9, Bernstein’s writing for the rest of those noteworthy projects was strictly ephemeral — heard for just one night, then poof, into the ether of live music.

In late 2019, as he approached his 59th birthday, the trumpeter began to consider issues like his own mortality and musical legacy. “I thought, ‘While I’m still on the planet, I need to start documenting my arrangements,” he recalled in a mid-November phone interview. “I had been writing so much, and a lot of that stuff was never recorded. I would spend time on an arrangement and then we’d do it once and that was it. Or sometimes it was never played at all. When that first happened, of course, I’d be disappointed. But Hal used to always tell me, ‘There’s no such thing as a wasted arrangement.’ And he was right.”

So, in January of 2020, just before COVID hit, and supported by a grant from the Shifting Foundation, Bernstein gathered with members of his Millennial Territory Orchestra (guitarist Matt Munisteri, saxophonists Erik Lawrence, Peter Apfelbaum and Doug Wieselman, trombonist Curtis Fowles, violinist Charlie Burnham, bassist Ben Allison and drummer Ben Perowsky) to begin documenting these arrangements. In four days they kicked out four complete albums, an expeditious pace that harkens back to old-school recording sessions for Bob Weinstock’s Prestige, Orrin Keepnews’ Riverside, Herman Lubinsky’s Savoy or Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff’s Blue Note.

All the material recorded in that four-day span is being released on Kevin Calabro’s Royal Potato Family label as a four-volume “Community Music” series, which commenced in September of 2021 with Tinctures In Time, a collection of Bernstein’s original compositions. It continues with a new volume every four months (Good Time Music drops on Jan. 7, Manifesto Of Henry-isms is scheduled for a May 6 release and Popular Culture will be out on Sept. 2). “It was a very easy, non-stressful situation,” Bernstein said of the marathon sessions at engineer Andy Taub’s Brooklyn Recording Studio in Cobble Hill. “I set it up so that when people showed up, the table was full of food and everyone hung out, ate, caught up with each other. And when I felt like the vibe was right, I said, ‘Let’s go in the room, guys. Let’s play some music.’”

Bernstein was also mindful of eliminating distractions during the process of recording. “The only way it was going to work was to have people sitting in chairs the whole time and just recording, which is why there was no video documentation of this. I really believe in vibrations, and when I’m making music I want all the vibrations in the room to be attuned to that music and nothing else. So if you’ve got people videoing in the room, those vibrations have nothing to do with what we’re doing, right? And like it or not, musicians are aware that they’re being filmed, so part of their vibration is not focused 100 percent on the music. So for four days the studio was only populated by people who had one desire — to play music.”

Once settled into recording mode, things moved organically and quickly. “I would rehearse a song for half an hour, 40 minutes; maybe not even run through the whole song, but just make sure all the parts were right, that everybody knew how to get out of the solo and understood how we would end the song. We’d run the song once or twice, then move on to the next song. And whenever it seemed like people’s energy was lagging I’d say, ‘Let’s take a break and go eat some food and hang out.’ And if you think about it, of course you can record eight songs in eight hours that way.”

For Bernstein, it was a chance to hear some of his charts played for the first time. “It was basically a situation of, ‘Let’s find what this music is.’ The idea was to have invocations. And because we’re all old enough to know you don’t get an infinite amount of opportunities to do these things, nobody took this lightly like, ‘Oh, it’s just another recording session.’ No, this was a chance to invoke some real music.”

Volume 1, Tinctures In Time, was something new for Bernstein. Instead of applying his sly arranger’s pen to existing tunes, as he had on the past Millennial Territory Orchestra projects, he showcased all original music bearing a wide array of influences. The intricate counterpoint number “Satori Slapdown” sounds like Duke Ellington meets P-Funk, while “Quart Of Relativity” comes across like Gil Evans playing Jimi Hendrix music. “Show Me Your Myth” echoes strains of Hendrix’s “If Six Was Nine” along with a touch of Lounge Lizards minimalism, and “The Gift” is inspired by minimalist pioneer Terry Riley. There’s even direct references to Little Feat and Nirvana in a couple of these Bernstein originals. “My music has always been about bringing these different elements in, whether it’s rock elements, jazz elements, noise elements or whatever,” he said.

The poignant hymn “Angels” is the most moving piece on Tinctures In Time. “That song was originally written as a typical MTO raver, where you start it one way and then it goes through different variations and builds into a giant thing at the end until it’s seven-and-a-half minutes long,” Bernstein explained. “Instead, I focused on this little three-minute, unadorned middle section … just a really beautiful piece of music where there’s no big payoff at the end. And that was something I learned from Levon Helm, the idea of just playing a simple melody without all the other stuff. I don’t think there’s that much of that in jazz, except for Duke Ellington. If you listen to a three-minute Ellington piece from 1942, you know that Johnny Hodges is going to play eight bars, and then there’s going to be some interlude followed by maybe six bars of Tricky Sam Nanton or Lawrence Brown, then maybe Cootie Williams plays a little something. It’s this idea that there’s always improvisation, there’s always writing, there’s always countermelody. And the whole time the beats are shifting and changing. So the way we played our instruments and the way I organized it is coming out of the Ellington band, where the solos aren’t these extended improvisations and the pieces aren’t all that long.”

After recording Tinctures, Bernstein sought feedback from his longtime friend Willner, who later passed from COVID on April 7, 2020. “I said, ‘Hal, I’m kind of amazed by this music, but I don’t know what it is. And Hal goes, ‘Well, it’s Bernstein music.’ And it made me realize that all those things that I’ve done on other people’s songs — extended intros to tunes and arrangements where there’s six minutes of original music before you get to this familiar melody — that’s my original music.”

Bernstein confessed that during the recording of “Community Music,” he felt committed to carry the torch for those who have passed. “Hal told me something when Lou Reed died. He said, ‘Listen, man, it’s up to us now to make our art with the same intent. Our heroes are gone, so we now have to use that intent when we create art.’ And I feel that way. I have part of Lou in me. His last performance, in Paris, was when he was playing to an arrangement I wrote when he could barely stand. I also share musical DNA with Hal, with Henry Butler, Roswell Rudd, Levon Helm, Paul Barrere. I toured with Little Feat, I played Ellington’s music with Brit Woodman and Jerome Richardson. I played free improvisation with Sam Rivers. I learned New Orleans music from being on stage or in the studio or in the room hanging with Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and Henry Butler. It’s all part of me. So in a sense, I feel like I’m like their vessel.”

Volume 2 in the series, Good Time Music, showcases vocalist Catherine Russell fronting the MTO on a program rooted in New Orleans featuring spirited interpretations of Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation,” Earl King’s “Come On,” Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can” and Professor Longhair’s “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.” They also do a decidedly Sly & the Family Stone-ish take on W.C. Handy’s “Careless Love.” Said maestro Bernstein, “It’s a continuation of the music I was making with Levon Helm, with roots in Ray Charles but reflecting the particular language of the MTO, and featuring Cath’s magnificent voice.”

Volume 3, Manifesto Of Henry-isms, features a different rhythm tandem of bassist Brad Jones and drummer Donald Edwards alongside MTO regulars, with special guests John Medeski on organ and pianist Arturo O’Farrill filling in for the late Henry Butler. “When Henry died, and we decided to do his music, I told the guys, ‘Listen, Henry’s not here. We’re not a New Orleans band. But we’re something else, and let’s see what that is. While we still have that feeling inside our bodies, let’s record this music. We can’t try to play it like we played with Henry but we can remember what Henry told us.’ And it was deep. Everybody felt it.”

On Manifesto Of Henry-isms (the title refers to Bernstein’s term for the rhythmic and harmonic idiosyncracies in Butler’s piano vocabulary) they mix it up in swaggering Hot 9 fashion on Butler’s “Booker Time,” Fats Domino’s “Josephine” (with vocals by violinist Burnham) and Sam Morgan’s 1927 song “Bogulusa Strut,” which develops into a Sun Ra-inspired free-jazz romp. With the iconoclastic Bernstein, Sun Ra is always just a step away. “That’s something that happened less with Henry,” he confided. “He was intent on preserving that New Orleans rhythm thing, so he was particularly demanding with Donald Edwards and Brad Jones. He was like, ‘This isn’t about you guys getting to do whatever you want. No, here’s what I need from you guys.’ So the music now does not sound like how we played it with Henry. It’s the music we made with him, but now that he’s not here the question becomes, ‘How does this music keep living?’ It lives on by refracting it through our own musical prism.”

Their radical re-imagining of King Oliver’s 1923 tune “Dippermouth Blues” has pianist O’Farrill dipping into a Cecil Taylor bag. And “X-Men” is an extension of Bernstein’s original minute-long intro he wrote to Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues” for the group’s 2014 album Viper’s Drag. An arranging tour de force on Manifesto is Bernstein’s rendition of Duke Ellington’s 1958 Newport classic, “Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue.” As he recalled, “We were set to play the Newport Jazz Festival, and Henry proposed that I write an arrangement on that Duke piece. So I did, and when I announced the tune, I said to the audience, ‘This music was commissioned for the Newport Jazz Festival,’ but no one asked me who commissioned it. I commissioned it! And that goes back to when I moved to New York in 1979 and first started hanging out at the Knitting Factory and meeting all those people. And I didn’t quite understand how everyone was making all this music, because I always was more of a sideman, never much of a composer. So I asked Roy Nathanson, ‘Man, how do you write all this music?’ And he said, ‘Well, I commission myself.’ And that stuck with me. So I commissioned myself to do that arrangement of ‘Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue’ for Newport, and that was the only time it had ever been played, until this recording.”

Volume 4, Popular Culture, features Bernstein leading the MTO through an eclectic program, including tunes by Eddie Harris (“I’m Gonna Leave You By Yourself”), the Grateful Dead (“Black Peter,” with Munisteri on vocals), Bessie Smith (“Put It Right Here”), George Harrison (“Long, Long, Long” from The Beatles a.k.a. The White Album), Charles Mingus (“Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love”) and Duke Ellington (“Flirtibird,” from the 1959 soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder).

Bernstein has dubbed the four-volume “Community Music” series as “cannabis music.” “I was thinking about how cannabis has become so marketable and hip these days,” he explained. “There is just a lot of positive energy around cannabis. And I also noticed that when you go into a cannabis dispensary it’s always either hip-hop or electronic dance music going on. That’s what people associate with cannabis now. And I got to thinking, ‘Why do those guys get all the fun of this positive cannabis energy when jazz musicians are the ones that started the cannabis revolution?’ And I remember talking to (Cab Calloway Orchestra trumpeter) Jonah Jones in the mid-’80s and he was telling me stories about when cannabis was still legal in New York. He said, ‘We all smoked it. I’d get out of my matinee gig, and I’d run into Bunny Berigan and I’d give him my uptown reefer, he’d give me his downtown reefer and we’d walk down the street smoking right out in the open.’

“So jazz has always been associated with reefer,” he continued. “And I’m saying to the hip-hop and electronica guys, ‘Wait a second, you guys get to be the cannabis music? Jazz is kind of where it came from. We want a piece of this positive energy, too!’ So you cannabis lovers don’t just have to listen to some dreamy synthesizer stuff and hip-hop. You can listen to us.” As for Bernstein’s continuing modus operandi, he explained it in this anecdote: “Roswell Rudd once told me, after seeing the Charlie Haden Memorial at Town Hall, he said, ‘Steven, so many fantastic musicians played, but when your friend Henry got up there, he changed the molecules in the room.’ And that’s what me and Henry always talked about — our desire to transform the room, to transform the people. I’m not doing this to impress anybody. I want to change molecules. I’m going for those vibrations, man. And I’m just so lucky that I have managed to surround myself with the kind of people who share that desire. That’s my community.” DB

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