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

By Published: November 20, 2006
AAJ: And there's no turning back after that.

SB: Yeah. Because I suddenly realized that it doesn't really matter. Any song I like, I can write for this band and it's going to sound like this band. It's going to sound like this new kind of music that is this old kind of music being interpreted by this group of people.

So when I'd bring in a tune, one time I'd bring in a twenties tune, and one time I'd bring in a modern tune. I try to keep mixing it up. If I'd bring in a couple modern ones in a row, I'd think, "Okay, I have to go back to the twenties stuff and pull out something new from there. I'm going do this Harry James from 1938 or '39, and it's kind of amazing—even though it's a little later, it references all that old riff stuff. I may even have to hit this 1928 Chicago one called "Nightmare [by Elgar's Creole Orchestra], which is really incredible.

Steven BernsteinAAJ: No one's going to know that song but you.

SB: No [laughing]. Exactly. But I'm actually surprised at how many people do know. Well, there aren't many, but there are these jazz historian guys like Will Friedwald, who know all this stuff. It's amazing.

AAJ: I think it's perfect to do any song you want. But as the group has gotten noticed outside of the Downtown thing, it seems that a lot of people have jumped on the contemporary tunes.

SB: Of course! Because those are the ones that they recognize.

AAJ: That's the hook for them.

SB: That's the hook. [Prince's] "Darling Nikki is the one. "Darling Nikki is the hit, and now I pretty much have to do it every week because people really want to hear it. It's also a very cathartic arrangement that people kind of love; it's a real voyage.

AAJ: It's a very, very good arrangement. It really uses a lot of different colors and voices really successfully, and it's true to the original song and original at the same time. Hey, I hear two guitars at the beginning of that one.

SB: No, it's violin. Charlie Burnham.

AAJ: Oh, of course. So all this stuff was pretty much recorded live.

SB: Everything was recorded live. There are no overdubs anywhere on the record.

AAJ: And the arrangements are all yours.

SB: Well, some of them are transcriptions, but I don't do exact transcriptions. There are people, like Don Byron or Dave Berger, where that's really part of their art. They make exact transcriptions. What I do is usually take the top melody and the bottom melody—and after that, I'm like, "Okay, what do I feel is going to work in my context with this?

So the "Pennies From Heaven arrangement is pretty damn close to the Don Redman arrangement. It's not an exact transcription, but if you listened to it, you'd totally recognize that it's that Don Redman arrangement.

AAJ: That's a reasonable way to work. It's just not slavishly literal.

SB: Well, it's just the way I like to do things. Like I was saying to someone: every musician's duty is to remake the music in their own image. And you also have to remake the process in your own image. So that's not part of my process; I don't feel the need to make exact transcriptions. That's not who I am. There are some people who are very exacting, and they live their lives that way. I'm just not that way [laughing].

AAJ: Well, everyone should just do what they want, work the way they want. You've said the group sound has changed over the years, and I understand that a lot of that is the result of the couple of new players that have come in. But do you think it has changed in any other ways?

SB: One of things I have to say that I think is really amazing about this record is that it's the first record I've ever made where people had been playing the music for a long time. And the parts have all evolved because the more people play the music; the more they personalize it and take it away from what's actually on the paper. So it's always evolving as these parts become more part of personnel expression and less part of something on a piece of paper. The more people play this music, the more it gets away from what I originally intended and the more it becomes what these guys are going to make it. Which is a great thing. I mean, there are some people who don't like that. There are people who like it to stay the way they intended it. But my thing is that I've got all these great musicians—so let them make this music more.

I used to say I had this theory called "superharmony. So there are lots of thirds, lots of things that are really bright, and then just let the people keep going, man, beyond harmony. Because it's not so much about conventional harmony. Not if you've not a guy like Peter [Apfelbaum]; he's a tenor player. It's interesting, because the reviews never mention him. I realized he doesn't have a lot of features—but on every song, he takes the lead.

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