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

By Published: November 20, 2006
AAJ: Right—the music has gone straight up to the original hard drive between your ears.

SB: Exactly. On the other hand, there's so much to absorb, and so much to learn, that I'm always getting embarrassed. I had some time off yesterday in the city, so I went to this one store—the only clothing store I like in New York City. They get these really cool clothes from England that nobody else gets. Anyway, they're playing this one song and I recognized it. I knew it was a really famous song. And I can't hear lyrics, so I can't ever tell what a song is by its words. It just sounds like the teacher in "Peanuts. I just hear the drum part, the bass part; I'm seeing the score in my head as I hear it. I looked at the people at the store, this really nice couple, and said, "This is a really famous song, right? What is it? They said, "'Whole Lotta Love' I said, "By The Who? They just gave me a look and said, totally flat, "No, Led Zeppelin. There are some things that everyone in the world knows that I just don't know. I never listened to Led Zeppelin or The Who, so when I hear that stuff, I know it's that kind of music, but I'm not quite sure which one it is.

AAJ: Well, you were in the right zone.

SB: Yeah, I knew it was that. We've been doing "I Can See For Miles for about three years now in Sex Mob. Originally, my wife was with me in the car—she likes to listen to classic rock—and the song came on, and I was like, "Wow, this is cool. What is it? She just looked at me and said, "The Who, 'I Can See For Miles.' It was like asking somebody what that red sign is that says S-T-O-P. But I actually had the song on a record, because I'll just buy a box of rock records for five dollars so I can have them. So I had this Who collection. So I found the song and wrote it out that night. That's a good tune, man.

AAJ: That's one of their best. I love the one-note guitar solo.

SB: Yeah. Anyway, we haven't even started the interview yet.

AAJ: This is the interview. But I guess I will get a little more formal. Let's start by talking about your longstanding nine-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra, which, after a couple of extended residencies at Tonic and the Jazz Standard, finally released its first record on Sunnyside, MTO Volume 1. This group, to some extent, is reflecting your interest in late 1920s-early 1930s jazz bands—the so-called territory bands from the Midwest.

SB:Yeah, and listen—I just got a new collection from Chicago. The first three songs that I transcribed for the band were all from Chicago. I don't think any of them ended up on the first record. Two Tiny Parnhams and one from a guy named Preston Jackson, who was a Chicago trombone player who played with Louis Armstrong. Even though it's not considered a "territory of the territory bands, Chicago had a lot of bands with violin in them. Violin, for whatever reason, was really big in Chicago bands in the twenties. And I really wanted to check out bands that had violin.

AAJ: Well, of course. You have a violin in the group.

SB: So I just listened to one of the records I got at the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago, called something like Black Chicago Bands of the Twenties. [Actually, Hot Stuff: Black Chicago Bands 1922-29, Frog Records], and there's a band called Fess Williams and his Joy Boys, that had three violins! Two trumpets, trombone, three saxophones, three violins, tuba, banjo, piano, drums. And it's unbelievable.

AAJ: Well, if you have three violins, what are they doing? Are they keeping time?

SB: No, sometimes they're playing unison melodies, sometimes they're playing little sax-like soli in harmony. It's an incredible sound. I think there were all these mob clubs with people dancing, and they wanted to dance to sweet tunes, too. So they had violin in the band. I'm pretty sure that's why they all had violins. So yeah, anyway—MTO started off with this twenties thing. I had this interest in the sound. I knew the stuff existed, because I'd seen about a million pictures in all these jazz history books I'd read; there were always these guys in the tuxedos, and they've got the violins, saxophones, clarinets. So I thought, "Let's just bring the sound back and see what happens. We'd take the sound, but not like in some recreation—not making some sort of examples for school programs.

AAJ: Well, MTO doesn't seem like any sort of tribute band that just recreates a style.

SB: No. It's a real band of friends and improvisers.

AAJ: Tell me how this group started out and how it works as a continuous entity.

SB: It started because I had been doing Friday nights at midnight with Sex Mob at Tonic since it opened. And it got really huge. It got to the point that our crowd starting going down, because the crowds were so big at one point that there would be a line of people waiting to get in—you couldn't move. It was that little moment where it was one of those things to do in the summer: go see Sex Mob at midnight. It was before no-smoking; Giuliani hadn't totally clamped down on New York yet. It was the end of having some sense of, "You're in New York. You can do whatever the hell you want. It's one o'clock in the morning in the Lower East Side. This is our zone. Actors, models, that whole thing. People who just wanted to be free to do whatever would come and hang. But then [bassist] Tony [Scherr] and [drummer] Ken [Wollesen] started working with [guitarist] Bill Frisell. Bill hired both of them as his trio; he basically hired my rhythm section.

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