Steven Bernstein: Proud Member of the Pre-Computer Absorption Generation
AAJ: That pretty much covers the music I'm into.
SB: Yeah [laughing]. It's been incredible. I've been doing these shows, and we've never had a rehearsal, but we hang out in his little place in the back before the gigs now and kind of talk about songs. And it's this really cool, tight band now. We do "Ophelia I transcribed [Band organist] Garth [Hudson]'s arrangement. We do all these songs that have arrangements now, and it just gets better. It gets more and more powerful. The last show was interesting; it was the first time it was like a rock and roll crowdbefore, it was really sedate, people just sitting there groovingand people were just going insane after every tune. You felt like you were at a Rolling Stones show or something. Because originally, it was just locals.
AAJ: Yeah, it was a Woodstock thing, right?
SB: Yeah, it was a gig up in Woodstock that locals would come to, and now people are coming from all over the world to hear it. But it's really amazing to be around Levon. First of all, playing with him is so incredible, because he's such an incredible musician. And he's such an incredible person; he's so funny and so charming. Now, I take it for granted, but I really had to rethink the way I think about music to play with him.
The first time it was fine, because we just did a kind of New Orleans-ey type of thing and I kind of just went in that direction. But then, as we started doing more songs, more blues, I had to think about it. Because we'd be playing something, and he'd be like [imitating Helm's Arkansas accent], "Yeah, may-annnn, yay-ah! And then we'd be playing something and he'd be looking at me and going, "Nawww, may-an, naww! So I'm thinking, okay, there's the "Yeah-man and the "Naw-man and you don't want too many "Naws. Now we never get to "Naw-man ; we've kind of figured out what he likes and what he doesn't. But [laughing] you'd be playing something you were sure was the right thing, and he'd be standing there going, "Nawww, mann, naww!
It's interesting because, being a jazz musician, you think, "This is the same as this, because, you know, Count Basie did this. But as far as where Levon's coming from, there's a lot of my language that's not part of his language. It's great, because I started listening to a lot of the music Levon's into, all this blues music and R&B from Memphis and Nashville, so I could hear how all these guys played. When I played for Lou Reed the first time, the first horn arrangement I wrote for him, he said, "No, no, that's totally wrong! That's totally wrong! I'd written this thing that was kind of like an Allen Toussaint-style horn arrangement.
One thing about playing with Levonmy greatest record is probably Rock of Ages (Capital, 1973), where the Band played with Allen Toussaint. To me, it's up there with Duke Ellington and everything. But Lou doesn't feel things on the backbeat; he feels them on the front of the beat, he's a rock musician. So I've written this "boom-bah-doo, boom-bah-doo, and Lou wants "boom-chucka-boom-chucku. And I realized that's where his beat is. His beat isn't on the other side; it's not the New Orleans upbeat. It's the downbeat. Lou's definitely coming from Little Richard. There's definitely a lot of Little Richard in Lou Reed.
But anyway, it's been a great, spiritual thing for me to drive up north to Woodstock. Woodstock's a very magical place and Levon's property is very magical. And I used to be a hippie, so I spent a lot of time in parts of northern California and Seattle and northern Montana in an early part of my life. So it's a real return for me to that part of my life to be around that kind of environment. It's so cool, on a Saturday, instead of going to downtown New York, to go up to Woodstock. And it's part of a continual evolution as a person, just like listening to different musicit's bringing in different experiences which then give you different outlooks and a different perspective.
AAJ: And that sort of thing goes on forever.
SB: Hopefully. As long as you keep your eyes and your options open.
AAJ: So you're a trumpeter. But you're also a slide trumpeter. I did a random web search, just using the phrase "slide trumpet, and got an interesting hit. Here's what it said: "The slide trumpet is now rarely played with any serious intent. The only player of note that I know of is in a band called Sex Mob.
SB: Well, that's almost right. There's a guy in France, an Italian called Luca Bonvini. And he really plays the slide trumpet seriously. He was a trombone player and he basically stopped playing trombone; he only plays the slide trumpet. But he plays the opposite style that I dohe plays it very cleanly. I met him for the first time on a tour recently. He's a modern classical musician, that kind of modern classical that borders on improv, and he had this theory. There's a cello and a violin, right, and they're basically the same instrumentthey have the same mechanics. But a violin's smaller, and violin players can play faster and more precisely than cello players. So his thinking was, "I play the trombone, but if I switch to slide trumpet, it's going to be the same concept: everything's going to be closer together, and I can actually be more precise.
So he plays very precisely. He made a record that he put out himself. And then there's Axel Dorner, who's a German, but I think he uses slide trumpet mainly for sounds. He plays it fairly regularly. And now it's beginning to crop up; there are some people in their twenties who are playing it. There's this guy named Brian Carpenter, who's from Boston. So people are beginning to play it, because of Sex Mob, basicallyyoung people who came up hearing Sex Mob and said, "I'm going to get a slide trumpet. Even some professional trumpet players who are a little younger than me have recently bought slide trumpets and started to mess around. But yesthere is no recorded history to the horn, basically.