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Steven Bernstein: Diaspora Suite (2008)

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Diaspora Suite is trumpeter and bandleader Steven Bernstein's fourth recording (and first of all original material) in a series dedicated to radical reinterpretations of traditional Yiddish melodies. After a memorial for the late director Robert Altman (Bernstein scored Altman's Kansas City), he reflected on a quote from Altman, "Create an event and shoot it like you have no control over it."

Inspired by Altman's words, Bernstein recruited a group of long time associates in the Bay area for an afternoon recording session in his hometown of Oakland, California.

The result is a West Coast summit meeting, including trombonist Jeff Cressman and saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, friends of Bernstein since grade school. Guitarist Nels Cline flew in from Los Angeles, joining bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola, members of his own trio. Rounding out the nonet are clarinetist Ben Goldberg, guitarist John Schott and drummer Josh Jones (from Apfelbaum's Hieroglyphics Ensemble). Studio overdubs were added later by guitarist Will Bernard.

Bristling with energy, Diaspora Suite is looser and more exploratory than Bernstein's other albums in the series. Emblematic of its title, the songs flow seamlessly; subtle variations on harmonic motifs, throbbing bass ostinatos and polyrhythmic patterns reoccur throughout the album. Unfussy skeletal frameworks allow soloists ample freedom to explore numerous shifts in mood and texture, while providing enough structure to maintain thematic focus.

An expert arranger with diverse tastes, Bernstein wrings lush contrapuntal orchestrations from "Asher," distant melancholy from "Judah," brooding drama from "Gad" and metallic thunder from "Benjamin." A magnanimous leader, he offers equal solo time to all, contributing a number of deft solos himself, including a soaring muted excursion on "Joseph," while trading extended mellifluous cadences with Ben Goldberg on "Reuben."

The session's MVP, Nels Cline fabricates a stirring melody from fragmentary bursts of noise and otherworldly EFX on "Levi," shredding with apocalyptic abandon on the grinding metal dirge "Benjamin." John Schott delivers a searing wah-wah laced statement on "Simeon," spinning a web of agitated electronics with Cline under a thicket of caterwauling horns on the frenetic "Dan."

The horn players bob, feint and weave with judicious restraint, trading lead positions with regularity. Peter Apfelbaum unveils his brawny tenor on "Simeon," Jeff Cressman's trombone waxes lyrical on "Gad" and Ben Goldberg unleashes his burbling contra alto clarinet on "Issachar," his clarinet swirling with circuitous frenzy throughout "Benjamin."

Josh Jones, Scott Amendola and Devin Hoff set up intricate polyrhythms that groove non-stop, modulating gracefully between sumptuous in-the-pocket vamps, rubato accents and turbulent, free-form break-downs.

With an abundance of electricity at his disposal, Bernstein gives his Hassidic themed melodies a major overhaul. Churning with the roiling turbulence of Miles Davis' fusion experiments and Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi sextet, the nonet offers a riotous psychedelic vision of Yiddish musical traditions. A thrilling session, Diaspora Suite is Bernstein's most probing and engaging recording in this long running series.


Track Listing: Reuben; Simeon (Yis May Chu); Levi; Judah; Dan; Naphtali; Gad; Asher; Issachar; Zebulon; Joseph; Benjamin.

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.

Record Label: Tzadik

Style: Modern Jazz


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