Leaving behind the west coast cool of 2004's Diaspora Hollywood, Steven Bernstein travels 350 miles north along the California coast to Oakland for the edgier, left coast avant of Diaspora Suite. It's the freest, most aggressive disc in the trumpeter's Diaspora series, which began with 1999's Diaspora Soul and continued with 2002's Diaspora Blues, all four discs a part of John Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture on Tzadik.
Every Diaspora disc has had its own premise, and Suite is no different. Instead of blending original material with reimagined traditional Jewish music, Bernstein has written all the music on Suite. It's also the loosest, least arranged music in the series. Recorded in a single six-hour session (with the exception of some sonic sweetening by guitarist Will Bernard after the fact), with twelve of the session's fifteen tracks finding their way onto this 65-minute set, Bernstein recruits a group of old friends to include a horn section, two electric guitarists (in addition to Bernard's post-production additions), electric bass and two drummers.
If that sounds like a potential for some seriously joyful noise, it isespecially when the tentet includes Nels Cline, whose predilection for transforming his guitar, at times, beyond all recognition is one of Suite's many defining points. He introduces "Levi" deceptively, with spare lines gradually morphing into near-noise with a host of gradually layered effects. With guitarist John Schott and drummer Scott Amendola onboard (who is one-third of Cline's Singers, along with also-present bassist Devin Hoff) and Bernard added later, it's nearly a reunion of mid-1990s group T.J. Kirk. Amendola and drummer/percussionist Josh Jones ensure an omnipresent pulse, ranging from the hand drum-driven "Reuben," and funkier "Simeon" and "Issachar" to the turbulent rubato of "Judah," densely polyrhythmic "Dan," darker maelstrom of "Gad" and near-metal "Benjamin."
Bernstein's sketch-like writing is ideal for a group this chock-full of intrepid improvisers. There are outstanding individual solos from clarinetist Ben Goldberg on "Benjamin," saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum on "Simeon," trombonist Jeff Cressman on "Gad" and, of course, Bernstein himself on the restrained but undeniably grooving "Zebulon."
But it's the collective interplay that makes Suite so exciting. Whether it's Bernstein and Goldberg trading off on "Reuben," Cline and Schott in tandem on "Dan" or "Naphtali," where all the horns are in the pool while periodically coalescing into form throughout, Bernstein has created a context where there's always some form of underlying structure to hang onto, while still allowing everyone as much freedom as possible.
It's hard to imagine Bernstein's Diaspora series getting better with each new installment, but the proof is in the pudding with Suite. Each release has its own charms, but Suite's more in-the-moment documentary nature, visceral energy and improvisational freedom, all built around Jewish-tinged themes that take the music farther away from direct reference than ever before, leave where Bernstein will go next a good question. The only certainty is that it'll be well worth finding out.
Personnel: Steven Bernstein: trumpet; Jeff Cressman: trombone; Peter Apfelbaum: tenor saxophone,flute, qarqabas; Ben Goldberg: clarinet, contra alto clarinet; Nels Cline: electric guitar; John Schott: electric guitar; Will Bernard: electric guitar sweeteners; Devin Hoff: electric bass; Josh Jones: drums, percussion; Scott Amendola: drums.