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

By Published: November 20, 2006
AAJ: You were screwed.

SB: [Laughing] I kind of felt like that at the time. I've since come to appreciate the fact, but at the time I was like, "Fuck. And I wanted to keep playing. Meanwhile, I'd had this gnawing thing at the back of my head, thinking about this music. I'd been buying a lot of it, and it was like being sucked down this hole—I kept going out and getting these records, finding these collections of twenties and thirties music, and spending all my time listening to it. So I thought, "Fuck it, man, I'm just going to put together a band with this instrumentation. I'll keep the night, and start a new band. I had no idea what kind of musicians I was going to get. Literally until the night before, I probably didn't have a band. Or music—I didn't even know what music I was going to do. I just wanted to get this instrumentation. I wanted clarinet, tenor, a guy who played baritone and soprano—him, I knew.

One thing that really inspired me was the idea of the saxophones switching instruments. Mingus had done that on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse!, 1963), a record that I'd been listening to a lot at that time. And that record's got almost the same instrumentation, but it has a guitar in it. Jerome Richardson plays baritone and soprano there, so sometimes you have him playing the bottom reed and sometimes you have him playing the top reed, and that can really change how everything sounds. So you can change everything by pivoting one person. Originally, I was going to get really super-Downtown-ey rhythm guys and then straighter horn guys. But because you never know who's available, I ended up with this band with more of a groove type of drummer—it just ended up with this sound. And that's how it started. I had maybe two arrangements and we improvised the rest of the show. We just kind of went for it. And no real rehearsal. I think we just rehearsed downstairs right before the gig.

For the second show, we did the same thing. We met downstairs. And there were already two musicians that couldn't make it—you know, people are always subbing out in New York, because somebody's always on the road. And that was the night of [trumpeter] Lester Bowie's funeral in New York. And man, a bunch of us had been to the funeral and I was really emotional—and probably a little ripped too, in honor of Lester. I had a cigar and cognac and other things. It was a really emotional funeral. Some of the most stoic people I knew were breaking down in tears. People just couldn't talk; they were devastated. And so then we played this show. I started with "St. Louis Blues, and the show was incredible. After the show, this guy comes up to me—and remember, this was our second gig, we don't really have a personnel, we have like three or four songs, we've never had a real rehearsal—and says, "I run a festival in Norway, and I have to have you this summer; I'm going to get you a summer tour. So [laughing] I said, "Okay. So from that second gig, we got a little mini-European tour. We did three huge festivals in Europe that summer.

So after two gigs, this band already had this little thing happening. And it just kept going. The only two personnel changes, really, were when people went on the road for extended periods of time and someone else came in and the music just changed around the new person. I never really fired the other person, but when they came back, it was like, "Miss a beat, lose your seat. The music had just changed, and you can't really go back once the music evolves. It may seem kind of mean, but it's just the way it was. A new person came in and kind of rewrote the part. Chris Speed had originally played clarinet, and he had gone to Italy for three or four months. So Doug [Wieselman] came in, and that was it, man. I couldn't really go back. The music had changed. And it was the same thing with Roberto Rodriguez, the original drummer. He went on the road with Joe Jackson, and Ben Perowsky came in.

Originally, it was all twenties music—twenties and early thirties. But then, really early on, I'd done a "reefer song concert—where I made a whole concert of doing all reefer songs with guest vocalists. And afterwards [singer/guitarist] Doug Wamble said, "Oh, I can sing that song —[Fats Waller's] "The Reefer Song. So we started doing that, and people were loving Doug's voice. Doug's a young kid from Memphis, and he's never been part of the Downtown scene, and he's just flowering. He'd been in Chicago, actually, before, and then he came to New York to be with Wynton [Marsalis]. And so that's kind of what he knew about music. So now suddenly he's around all these people who are like, "Hey man, here you are, play—do whatever you want. Whatever you feel like playing, just play it. Have a good time. No judgment. And he's just exploding, man. This young kid. He's really amazing to watch, because he's from another generation—the post-Wynton generation.

I'm from the psychedelic generation, the Art Ensemble generation. The Rahsaan Roland Kirk generation. And I'm walking in the mall—there's this fucked-up mall where I live and sometimes you have to go there to get stuff. So when I'm at the mall, I suddenly hear this arrangement of [Stevie Wonder's] "Signed, Sealed, Delivered in my head; I hear the whole thing. So later I said to Doug, "Hey, can you sing this song? He said yeah, so I wrote this arrangement. And once I wrote that, I suddenly knew: "Oh, I can do any kind of music now.

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