“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 Millennial Territory Orchestra (MTO) has done 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 label-mates 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. Furthermore, Dorn’s protege Kevin Calabro founded Royal Potato Family, the record label releasing Bernstein’s ‘Community Music’ series of which Popular Culture is the 4th volume. So it comes 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 a “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.”
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 Henryisms, 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.”
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.
Royal Potato Family