Steven Bernstein | The Royal Potato Family
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Steven Bernstein

Steven Bernstein
Biography | Tour Dates

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.”

TINCTURES IN TIME (Community Music, Vol. 1)

Tinctures in Time is the first original music Bernstein has ever written for the MTO, which from the beginning had exclusively been a vehicle for his arrangements of other people’s songs, from Count Basie to Prince.  Most of the album was composed in 2019, a tough year for Bernstein: Henry Butler had recently passed, and there were serious injuries and death in his immediate family.  Like a lot of people do, Bernstein got through it by working.  “I was spending a lot of time on planes, going to visit people in hospitals,” he says.  “So what else am I going to do with my time? I ended up with all this music.”

“The tincture of time” is a phrase Bernstein’s father, a doctor, uses for when there’s nothing to be done but wait for something to heal; the relevance of time as healer for Bernstein himself is clear.  He altered the phrase so it makes a little reference to a favorite Sly Stone tune.  And “tinctures,” Bernstein says, also refers to “things that people take to give feelings of euphoria.”  It’s why he calls this “cannabis music.”

“Cannabis music” is part of a tradition that extends back to the very beginning of jazz: what was known in the 1920s as “viper music.”  But the influences here include not just jazz but funk, various kinds of African music, and Minimalism.  It adds up to “a sense of music not of this world,” Bernstein explains, “an altered state that you can kind of lose yourself in.  Tinctures in Time is in the tradition of trance music.”

“One of the things that Henry and I really bonded on,” he continues, “was we both felt that music was not just notes and rhythm — when we play music it’s really about transformative experiences: that was our goal.”  Or, as Fran Lebowitz once said, “music is like a drug that doesn’t kill you.”

So Tinctures in Time doesn’t have to resort to the usual trippy signifiers like weird sound effects and tons of reverb — although if you want a classic psychedelic sound, look no further than Charles Burnham’s mind-bending wah-wah violin on the majestic and mysterious “High Light.”  With its interlocking parts and inexorable rhythmic undertow, “Show Me Your Myth” is slow-motion funk, with a sleek pulse that harks to In a Silent Way and On the Corner.  Ever-changing and richly hued, “Quart of Relativity” is fodder for vivid mind-movies.

The Millennial Territory Orchestra had never featured the guitar prominently, but Bernstein had just come back from working with Los Lobos, and David Hidalgo’s guitar was fresh in his mind.  Here, for the first time in the MTO, Matt Munisteri’s guitar is often front and center, or even all by itself: note his face-melting solo on “Planet B.”

The album’s emotional center is “Angels,” as moving as anything Bernstein has ever done.  It’s a song that needs no words, with lyrical solos that speak as clearly as any voice.  “This is who I am,” Bernstein says.  “I’ve been through a lot of stuff.  But I don’t think this song is sad, necessarily — it’s just emotional.”  And the MTO is right there with him, sharing the load — there might not be any moment in all of the Community Music series that more clearly shows how this band is truly a community, a powerful expression of all those years of friendship and music-making

Bernstein had also recently worked with the great Senegalese musician Baaba Maal and then Little Feat, powerful experiences that influenced a still-evolving musician.  You can hear elements of those artists as well as Duke Ellington, Fela, and the Band but Tinctures in Time is indisputably, as Bernstein’s longtime friend and co-conspirator Hal Willner once put it, “Bernstein music.”

GOOD TIME MUSIC (Community Music, Vol. 2)

Good Time Music is a continuation of the music I was making with Levon Helm, with roots in Ray Charles, New Orleans, and the blues,” Bernstein says, “but refracted through my own musical prism, the particular language of the MTO and Catherine Russell’s magnificent voice.”

Bernstein and Russell met in 2008 when Russell did a show at one of Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble’s at his barn in Woodstock; later, she recorded her acclaimed album Sentimental Streak there, with Bernstein playing and arranging horns.  Russell became a regular at the Ramble and cut the Harry Nilsson tune “Poli High” with Bernstein’s band Sexmob the following year, followed by a few New York shows with the MTO.  She became part of the community.

The album’s title comes from Lou Reed, who had just seen Helm’s triumphant 2007 show at New York’s Beacon Theatre.  Bernstein was in the band and recalls that “the audience went crazy.”  Reed’s summation was a bit more subdued: “Oh, you know,” he told his friend Hal Willner, “it was good time music.”

“When Hal told me that story, I thought it was a put-down,” says Bernstein. “But later I learned that Lou loved good time music — the kind where you just tap your foot and nod your head with a smile on your face — because he knew how important that is in the world.  And with Levon, I learned how beautiful it was to play that kind of music.  I thought it would be great to make a record of good time music.  So here it is.”

Good Time Music draws on the feeling that Helm brought to the audiences at the Midnight Rambles, not to mention Bernstein’s experience touring with Little Feat.  And once again, there’s that sense of music as healing.  “Absolutely,” Bernstein agrees. “It’s always healing to play good time music — even if you haven’t experienced loss.  Playing good time music feels good: the band feels good, the audience feels good, everything feels good.” Never mind that the words to most of these songs are kind of downers — “I don’t hear lyrics!” Bernstein protests. Good time music, you see, is all about the tap, the nod and the smile.

“Yes We Can” is the very embodiment of good time music, and in the MTO’s hands, with Russell leading the charge, it builds and starts to cook — the kind of collective journey that something only experienced musicians can conjure. “That’s capturing lightning in a bottle,” Bernstein says.  “And it takes a lot of trust to get there.” And listen to Ben Perowsky’s drumming there — the guy is on fire.

Most of these tunes happen to be written by residents of New Orleans: Percy Mayfield (“River’s Invitation”), Earl King (“Come On”), Allen Toussaint (“Yes We Can”) and Professor Longhair (“Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand”).  New Orleans music runs deep in Bernstein’s bones: he’s worked extensively not just with Henry Butler but with Allen Toussaint and Dr. John; he was originally taught trumpet in the style of Louis Armstrong, and, like Satchmo, he funnels his charisma and sense of humor into a stage presence that’s as entertaining as it is commanding.

Which is just one connection to Catherine Russell: her father Luis Russell was Louis Armstrong’s musical director in the ’30s and early ’40s; he also played with another New Orleans jazz originator, King Oliver.  (Russell’s mother Carline Ray, a Juilliard grad, was a hotshot session bassist, sang in choruses conducted by Leonard Bernstein and played with the famed International Sweethearts of Rhythm.)

Russell sang backup with Steely Dan and David Bowie for years, as well as other blue chip artists such as Paul Simon, Madonna and Al Green before stepping out on her own as an acclaimed solo artist, recording seven albums and winning two Grammy nominations. Russell, a consummate professional, sang her vocals live with the band. “She’s just the best,” Bernstein says. “She’s got a perfect mixture of science and intuition. She’s an excellent musician: listen to her rhythm, every note she sings, it’s perfect. There is no one else like her.”

MANIFESTO OF HENRY-ISMS (Community Music, Vol. 3)

Bernstein first saw the late, great New Orleans pianist Henry Butler play in 1984.  “He was genius-level brilliant, man,” he says, still marveling. “I couldn’t believe there was a guy who could sound like the most ancient music and the most futuristic music at the same time.” (Which is an apt description of Bernstein’s music too.)  Fourteen years later, Bernstein took Hal Willner’s recommendation and hired Butler to play in the touring band that played the score for Robert Altman’s film Kansas City. In 2013, the two musicians formed The Hot 9, the name a tip of the fedora to Louis Armstrong’s landmark Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions of the 1920s.  They released the acclaimed Viper’s Drag album the following year, and toured until Butler’s untimely passing in 2018.

“Henry-isms” is Bernstein’s term for the rhythmic and harmonic idiosyncracies in Butler’s piano playing.  For his inventive arrangements, Bernstein isolated those Henryisms and distributed them to different musicians in The Hot 9, so now Butler’s style was emulated by an entire ten-piece band, effectively turning his piano into an orchestra. To hear Bernstein’s Henry-istic arrangements in action, listen to Butler’s solo piano version of his James Booker tribute “Booker Time” (from 2002’s Patchwork: A Tribute to James Booker) and then hear Bernstein’s full-band version, and the way it demonstrates the lineage between Dixieland and funk.

While Butler is no longer here to play the arrangements that Bernstein wrote for him, his spirit remains deep in this music. “I wanted to document these arrangements,” Bernstein says, “while we still had Henry’s feeling in our bodies.” But, without Butler’s resounding musical presence, Bernstein urged the band to go its own way. “We know what he taught us,” he says, “so let’s take that and make it ours.  We’re carrying it forward.”

On Manifesto of Henry-isms, Bernstein and the band carry on that Butler-esque mix of ancient and futuristic, innovation with a reverence for tradition, embracing the virtuosity, ingeniousness and jaunty swing of early New Orleans jazz but incorporating all kinds of music that happened in the meantime. Pan-Latin jazz master Arturo O’Farrill’s piano-playing is both visceral and brainy like Butler’s was, but with his own unique sense of harmonic fearlessness, Afro-Latin rhythmic influences and NYC-bred bravado. And while bassist Brad Jones and drummer Donald Edwards impart an authentic Big Easy swing, John Medeski’s playful, percolating organ playing gives The Hot 9 a brand new flavor, and dig his thoroughly modern, electrifying piano solo over the primordial changes of King Oliver’s 1923 “Dippermouth Blues.”

When Butler, Bernstein and The Hot 9 played the 2016 Newport Jazz festival, Butler “commissioned” Bernstein to write an arrangement of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” the Duke Ellington tune that set the stage for Paul Gonsalves’ legendary 27-chorus tenor sax solo at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which almost singlehandedly revived Ellington’s career.  But here, it’s O’Farrill who takes the epic solo — and all the ensemble parts the band plays during the solo are derived from sections of Gonsalves’ tenor solo.

You can also hear the modern touch in The Hot 9’s take on “Bogalusa Strut”: slowed from Sam Morgan’s original 1927 prestissimo to a saucy vivace, the tune has a levitational free coda that was not part of the Butler-era arrangement.  Then there are Bernstein’s trademark newly composed introductions: in “Little Dipper,” which is the introduction to King Oliver’s “Dippermouth Blues,” the melodies cycle around each other in a way that’s more Henry Threadgill than Dixieland.  You’ll hear some Machito in “Indigo Aperitif,” Bernstein’s sprightly introduction to “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” and “X-Men” explodes the Bernstein-composed introduction to “Wolverine Blues” from Viper’s Drag into a full-blown composition.

If you’re looking for the sound of community, look no further than on “Black Bottom Stomp”: there’s a 48-bar collective improvisation, and what could easily be a chaotic free-for-all becomes ten brilliant musicians having a funky conversation, listening, reacting and keeping it grooving in the uncanny way that only a true community can.

POPULAR CULTURE (Community Music, Vol. 4)

“Where are you going to get original arrangements of The Grateful Dead, Eddie Harris, The Beatles, Bessie Smith, Ellington, and Charles Mingus, and not played as novelties but, like, this is our music?”  Bernstein asks.  Popular Culture, that’s where. It’s what the MTO has done for brilliantly for 20 years: playing Bernstein’s arrangements of the American Songbook, but reimagining that tradition in their own image. “I’ve always been into the idea of popular culture: what do we all connect with? What brings us together?” Bernstein adds.  “Also, I just like the music.”

It’s called Popular Culture and not Popular Music because these artists made music for the people, whether they moved a lot of units or not. Eddie Harris, whose playful, wide-ranging crossover musical spirit just might be something of a role model for Bernstein, wasn’t often critically acclaimed but he was the first jazz artist to receive a gold record. The iconic Charles Mingus, on the other hand, never had a gold record but he recorded for major labels like Columbia and Atlantic, where he was labelmates with artists like Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin.  Then there are deep cuts like The Grateful Dead’s “Black Peter” and The Beatles’ “Long, Long, Long”: great songs that weren’t hits but are still known and loved by millions because they’re on best-selling albums.

The MTO plays an elegant, reverential take on “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” a tune Charles Mingus wrote in 1974 as an elegy for one of the few human beings who awed him.  Ellington awes Bernstein too: he made it a point to listen to Duke Ellington records every day for thirty years.  Ellington appears again with “Flirtibird,” from his score for Otto Preminger’s great 1959 Anatomy of a Murder; that entire album is itself a key pillar of the MTO sound.

Bernstein embraced the Beatles at a relatively advanced age: not until he was in his early 20s, when someone left a copy of the White Album at his loft after a party.  “And I started listening to it and I thought, this is incredible!” he recalls.  “It changed my life.”  He began writing an arrangement of “Long, Long, Long” in 2003 — and finished it on the plane from Italy to San Francisco to say goodbye to his mother.

“I’m Gonna Leave You by Yourself” from Eddie Harris’ overlooked and adventurously eclectic gem of a record called Silver Cycles (1968), was produced by Joel Dorn, who was Hal Willner’s mentor, who was Bernstein’s mentor.  So it goes full circle.  “Black Peter” is from the Grateful Dead’s 1970 classic Workingman’s Dead, a record that Bernstein never owned in his younger years, but then he didn’t have to — in ’70s Berkeley it was all around.  But what does the MTO have in common with the Grateful Dead?  A deep and abiding connection to American vernacular music, a point embodied by what Bernstein calls its “tri-coastal” arrangement: “It has a New Orleans feeling, the way I imagine a riverboat band may have sounded, then the New York City vibe because of the intensity and intent,” he says. “And in the bridge you hear that West Coast psychedelic haze.”

Bernstein enjoys getting under the hood of these songs, reverse-engineering them, determining what’s essential to the song and then thinking about what this particular group of musicians can do with it.  So he’ll zero in on that secondary melody in “Long, Long, Long” and turn it into an entire introduction.  “It’s like, look at that!  Let’s make something of it!” Bernstein says. “I always say, just try to get as much music in the music as possible. The more music, the better.”

COMMUNITY MUSIC

The “Community Music” sessions incorporate the past into the present, making music that’s a new kind of timeless. “Levon’s not here, and Henry’s not here, and Hal Willner’s not here, and Roswell Rudd’s not here, and Lou Reed’s not here,” says Bernstein. “So I’m carrying forward all the stuff I learned from them — but through me, the way I look at it.  Hal used to say, as our favorite musicians were passing, ‘It’s up to us now — we need to make the music with the same intent as our heroes. We have to be our own heroes now.'”

The Millennial Territory Orchestra community are heroes in that sense but also in the way they’ve come together to make this essentially joyous music even in the face of misfortune. It’s the spirit of the New Orleans second line, alchemizing sorrow into a celebration of life. “These records really aren’t all about my loss,” Bernstein says, “but that’s also what’s bonded this community in an even stronger way — because those experiences have given us an even greater awareness of how sacred life is. You hear that in all of this music, whether it’s a happy song or a sad song, you can hear the reverence we all have for life.  We don’t take these opportunities to play music together lightly.” And you can hear that loud and clear on every note of every tune of the “Community Music” sessions. Listen and be uplifted.

 
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