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.”
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.
Photography by Jacob Blickenstaff
Royal Potato Family