Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra: Good Time Music
Arranger, composer, brass maniac and musical alchemist, Steven Bernstein is a versatile gift to human ears. If you’re a living soul who’s ever felt your foot thump or your butt sway from side to side from, say, Ray Charles or Little Feat or Louis Armstrong, then you owe it to yourself Bernsteinize. His musical net is wider than that, but let’s start there.
Bernstein’s last, good time music, is the second in a series of four “Community Music” albums, inspired by his time playing and arranging for the laid-back “Midnight Ramble” concert series put together by drummer/vocalist Levon Helm (of the band) at his property in Woodstock, New York. Bernstein’s versatility as a player is as legendary as the soulful croak of Helm in Arkansas – he has written for/recorded with/toured in all areas of American music, from classic rock (U2, Donald Fagen, Elton John, Marianne Faithfull) to soul (Nona Hendryx, Macy Gray, Sharon Jones, Ben E. King) to various new century artists spanning genres (My Morning Jacket, Angelique Kidjo, Joan as Police Woman). As a solo artist, he’s more simply grouped under ‘jazz’, but it’s a word he oversteps as completely as anyone else. His band Sexmob recorded an album of James Bond-related music, and his Millennial Territory Orchestra (“MTO”) is a group equally at home with material composed by Prince, Fats Waller and Jerry Garcia.
good time music puts MTO side by side with singer Catherine Russell, known as both a backup singer (Steely Dan, David Bowie) and solo artist with a generous soul/jazz voice – and whose father was Louis Armstrong’s musical director for many years. many years. The six tracks Bernstein composes for Russell’s voice are all blues-based and mostly written by artists we associate with New Orleans: Allen Toussant, Earl King, Professor Longhair and Percy Mayfield, and they span half a century, from the 1920s to the 1970s. The performances are neither “jazz” in the narrow sense of this genre today, nor idiomatic “blues”, the electric or acoustic guitar framing classics of 12 measures.
Instead, I want to suggest that this album is better than the work of a multi-genre band like the Tedeschi Trucks Band (co-led by vocalist/guitarist Susan Tedeschi and her slide guitar master husband Derek Trucks). This group commands sold-out crowds in theaters around the world because they are heard as part of a “jam band” culture that unites fans of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, various country bands alternative and bluegrass aficionados. Bernstein, Russell and MTO – and in particular this set of superb blues-infused melodies and arrangements – are in the same glorious zone of fun, leaning less towards guitar solos and more towards that brilliant horn cast.
Tedeschi Trucks Band also has a horn section, and MTO gets tons of mileage from guitar playing or Matt Munisteri. But the similarities between these groups are less purely instrumental (MTO is five horns plus violin, no piano, TTB is three horns, keyboard, two drummers) than it is a question of intention. Both groups make music from similar American pools of black music, where soul music, rock ‘n’ roll, New Orleans funk and jazz were constantly exchanging juice. Particularly on good time music, where MTO faces a brilliant soul singer, the similarities are even clearer.
Of course, TTB faces Trucks’ searing guitar, while MTO boasts of the delightful intertwining of horns in Bernstein’s arrangements and sophisticated jazz improvisation. Nevertheless, listen to MTO cover Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation” –Good timeand wonder if Tedeschi and Trucks wouldn’t make it a good stopwatch too, using much the same swaying, dirty, delicious, popping groove. Cat Russell is all laid back and personality as she straddles the band, drummer Ben Perowsky and bassist Ben Allison drawing inspiration from New Orleans to shake things up, then giving way to Curtis Fowlke’s trombone solo.
That Crescent City thump is also brilliant on Allen Toussaint’s “Yes, We Can,” with fiddler Charlie Burnham sounding less like a “jazz” fiddler and more like a guy somewhere on a porch who’s got super technique. smooth. Bernstein slams the horns like a light-footed boxer dancing around Munisteri’s guitar and drums. Professor Longhair is represented by “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand”, which begins with a slow whine (with Hammond organ cat John Medeski sitting on the old B3) and then ends with a funky backbeat. The collective improvisation that completes the whole album is based on this other great New Orleans tradition, with all the horns improvising collectively but with the melody never far away. Then Russell restarts the track with just a guitar under her like that back porch is all real. The band returns with a dancing soul, and you I never want this to end.
In the midst of it all are other incredible treasures. “Good Ol’ Wagon” puts you in the spirit of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong working together, a blues track with an arrangement that updates the 20s sound with modern harmony but Also maintains the century-old feeling with gliding clarinets and Bernstein at its Pops-is. “Careless Love” has been recorded by just about everyone from Bessie to Eric Clapton and Willie Nelson, so Bernstein and Russell still have both. The arrangement begins with a oscillate groove that slides at will on old-school swing. Erik Lawrence’s baritone saxophone solo is concise and elegant. It is perhaps remarkable that this is one of the few moments on good time music when it seems that a “jazz solo” is distributed.
Most of the time, the band’s reeds are busy working the center of Bernstein’s ingenious charts. Peter Apfelbaum and Doug Weiselman play tenor lines (dig the ominous opener to Earl King’s rocker “Come On”), moan clarinet wakes and smack critical heartbeat lines. These guys don’t need “solos” because the MTO is more concerned with performing as a variation of a dance band. The long stretch in the middle of “Come On,” where the band plays an insistent downtime groove as little takes center stage, makes his point: Bernstein wants you to hear and feel the groove more that he only wants you to marvel at any Coltrane-ing modern jazz. It’s a band, a combo, a dance collective, a single blues singer with a guitar. It is a machine that connects to your own desire.
All this to say that good time music is that rare wonder: deep in its sense of history and honest artistic expression, but pure joy on the surface too. The elements that can be nostalgic – the swing rhythms and the use of elements from pre-modern jazz – all come from an honest place. Bernstein unfolds the verities of jazz arrangement with a light touch, and his band is just small enough that it doesn’t sound as much like Count Basie as it does the E Street Band or the TTB, i.e. a rock band that always cares about a certain type of emotional staging.
But nothing else about this date suggests any self-awareness. Catherine Russell never sings in imitation of an early jazz icon, but as a modern soul singer who knows her historical influences with natural fluidity. On his trumpet and slide trumpet, Bernstein doesn’t sound like Armstrong (or Roy Eldridge, or Gillespie, or anyone else), but he resonates with sympathy for their influences. The band simply plays the music as if small acoustic big bands (the “territory bands” – the term that gives the MTO its name) were the most natural vehicle of all for the parties you would want to have. And maybe they are, at least in the hands of Steven Bernstein.
There are two more installments in this series due out in 2022, all recorded in the same set of sessions. The following features an arrangement written for the late New Orleans pianist Henry Butler of old tunes like “Black Bottom Stomp” and Ellington’s more modern classic “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” The last, popular culture, will include arrangements of tracks from the Beatles, Grateful Dead, Eddie Harris and Charles Mingus, among others. Here we go again: Steven Bernstein’s meta-verse spans turn-of-the-century New Orleans to 1960s Haight Ashbury and beyond.
It’s not just for jazz fans, and it might not be quite ‘jazz’. It’s just wonderful.