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.”
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 Ram-ble’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 Nils-son 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 beau-tiful 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 ex-perienced 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 Invi-tation”), 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 Cat 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 conduct-ed 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, re-cording 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 per-fect. There is no one else like her.”
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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