Why release four records at once? Steven Bernstein’s answer is succinct and definitive: “Because why not?” The beloved virtuoso trumpeter, arranger, bandleader and composer hereby unveils a typically superlative quartet of records under the rubric of “Community Music”: Tinctures in Time, a collection of incantatory originals; the aptly titled Good Time Music with singer Catherine Russell; Manifesto of Henry-isms, re-imaginings of Bernstein’s inspired arrangements for the brilliant New Orleans pianist Henry Butler & The Hot 9; and Popular Culture, a set of Bernstein-ian takes on The Grateful Dead, Charles Mingus, The Beatles and others.
All four records were played by essentially the same band, the Millennial Territory Orchestra — with the line-up slightly morphing into The Hot 9 for Henry-isms — in just four days, showcasing four different facets of this remarkable, one-of-a-kind maestro.
“Community Music” might have begun when Henry Butler passed in 2018 and then Bernstein’s mother the following year. Understandably, Bernstein began to consider his own mortality — and his musical legacy. “I thought, ‘While I’m still on the planet, I need to start documenting my arrangements,” he says. He won a Shifting Foundation grant – previous recipients include Bill Frisell, Craig Taborn and John Zorn — to do just that: document as many of his unrecorded and sometimes even unperformed arrangements as possible.
The band gathered at a Brooklyn studio in January 2020. Every day, Bernstein made sure to lay out a nice spread — a band, like an army, travels on its stomach — and the old friends would nosh and shoot the breeze for a while, then get down to work. They’d rehearse each tune for 45 minutes or so, then do two takes — no Protools fixes, no Autotune. “All the musicians are reacting to each other in real time, so you can’t use any of those tricks,” Bernstein says. “So this is exactly what happened: it’s the music we played.”
The “Community Music” sessions are organic music played by gifted musicians with both solid roots in tradition and a zest for invention. “Deep down, it’s the Ray Charles horns, the Duke Ellington horns,” says Bernstein. One of the great achievements of these fascinating records is to catapult those quintessential sounds into the 21st century.
It’s called “Community Music” because the musicians of the MTO have been working with each other in various combinations for decades, with Bernstein at the center of it all. Bernstein has known pianist Arturo O’Farrill for well over 30 years and drummer Ben Perowsky for nearly 40; he’s been playing music with saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum since they were twelve years old. And he’s known everyone else in the band for at least 25 years, starting when Bernstein moved from Berkeley to New York City in 1979 and soon found himself in the thick of the golden age of the downtown jazz scene, much of it centering around the Lounge Lizards, a band he eventually joined.
When musicians work with each other for that long, they develop what’s often called telepathy but is really trust, a key concept in Bernstein’s musical philosophy. “Community Music” might be four separate albums, but it’s also just one episode of a musical conversation that’s been going on for decades. “The reason all this music even exists is the honest communication we’ve developed over the years,” Bernstein says. “And not only are these people excellent musicians, they’re distinctive players. Those arrangements are written for the specific people who are playing them, and that’s why it sounds the way it does.”