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Steven Bernstein: Proud Member of the Pre-Computer Absorption Generation

By Published: November 20, 2006
AAJ: Yeah, it seems like everyone is writing about these special, magical, musical happenings. Tell me about playing with Levon.

SB: It's been an incredible, educational, spiritual, musical part of my life for the last two years. I kind of ended up there for one of the early Rambles and he just took me in. My friend Erik Lawrence, the bassist from MTO, had been playing with him for a long time—back when Levon had no money and was doing really badly and couldn't sing [he had had throat cancer], my friend would do it as kind of a favor, because he loved Levon. Erik said, "Hey man, Le's doing these concerts up at his place. We don't really know what you're going to make, but if you ever make it, it would be great. I'd go, "Yeah, I'll try, I hope I can do it. So I did one once, and it happened to be the first one where Levon sang. He hadn't sung in five or six years, so it was this incredible thing. The Rambles were still pretty small at that point, and it was one of these magic moments. I was just back at Levon's house, and we were hanging out with some of the musicians, and I just ended up onstage with him playing, and it was like magic. It ended up on the first of these CD/DVDs Levon has out, and the stuff that's on it is from the first time I played with him. I didn't even know what song was, or what key it was in. It was like free improvisation—just listening and reacting.

But this kind of R&B music that he plays—I don't even know how to describe what he does. It's like folk-gospel-R&B-blues-jazz.

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 crowd—before, it was really sedate, people just sitting there grooving—and 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 Levon—my 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 music—it's bringing in different experiences which then give you different outlooks and a different perspective.

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