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Interviews

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

By Published: November 20, 2006
AAJ: He thought you'd just walk to the car, get your instruments, and be ready to record.

SB: Yeah. He thought we'd just jump in and do the record. So he said, "When are you going to do the record? I said, "Listen, man, we're all busy making money. I can't go and make this little, cheap record for you because you want it! When we have some free time, we'll make your record. And it's so nice—I won't always be in this position, but right now I make my money doing music. I don't have to rely on these record company people with their little pittances. It's how I get my creative thing happening, but it's not how I make my living. I'm really lucky. I'm a trumpet player who works with Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull, Sting—that's what I get to do for a living. But anyway, I wrote all this music and we went in and made the record. Kenny laid down all these percussion tracks afterwards, and it was really fun. We laid like two layers of percussion on every song. Basically, he had filled the entire room with percussion. Kenny has no time, every day he has two recordings and two gigs—so we'd get him for three or four hours at a time and we'd just go through every song. The first day, we did all wood percussion on every song. Then the second day, we did all metal percussion on every song. Then we did a third day with whistles, vibraphones, wind sounds. Every song has a minimum of two and usually three percussion tracks.

Then those Good and Evil guys just started doing their thing, reconstructing it all. I basically gave them total freedom. The only restriction was that we had this kind of manifesto that it would be equally divided between our natural sounds and the sounds that they created. It could be any kind of perspective—50/50, 80/20, 10/90, but overall it had to even out to 50/50 over the course of the entire record. One song could be all natural and the next one completely cut up. Which is pretty much how it is: one song is pretty much just the performance, and one song is all cut up.

AAJ: And then there are those ones that combine the two, like "Dick Contino's Blues, which is all sped-up and slowed-down, except for the breaks, which are left alone.

SB: Right, it's just the band playing. They did a great job. They gave me the rough mixes and I think I made like three comments, tiny comments, and said, "Fine. Finish it.

AAJ: You spoke about how Briggan can sound at times like a slide trumpet, and I think you two have always blurred your sounds. That's part of the band sound. But on this record, with all the Good and Evil production, and even without that, in the way the band is playing—there are moments where I can't even say what instrument I'm hearing.

SB: Yeah, if you weren't there at the recording session, there's no way you could know. Really. Because it's all been changed and altered, and because we're all sharing the same language.

AAJ: To me, "Kid Rock Deluxe and "Pygmy Suite feel like two versions of the same tune.

SB: Well, here's why you feel that. That vocal part from "Pygmy Suite is taken from "Kid Rock Deluxe. And here's how your ears are more open than some people: in some review, a guy referred to "the unfortunate scatting on "Pygmy Suite. Scatting! It's not like I'm sitting there going "shoo-be-do, it's like a sample from another song of me screaming that's been sped up and altered. [Disgustedly] Scatting. Obviously, this guy does not get what he's hearing [laughing]. But it's okay. It just shows where people are coming from when they're listening to things. This guy hasn't heard that much electronic music, so if he hears a voice on a jazz record, it's scatting.

AAJ: How do you deal with this material live?

SB: We haven't done it. We very rarely play songs from our records live. A lot of times, for the records, I'll just come up with some songs and bring them. And there are songs in our repertoire that we've been playing for years that have never been recorded. I did actually bring two of the songs from the record to the European tour. We played one, maybe two of them. "Dick Contino is actually one that we've been playing live. That's a live song. Things just get added to the repertoire. We just have so many songs that I don't feel the need to play the record. I just feel the need to do a good show.

AAJ: Tell me about the Baby Loves Jazz project. This is kids' tunes done jazz-style: jazz music for children. I know you just released the record Go Baby Go! (Verve, 2006), which you co-produced with [producer and Ropeadope Records head] Andy Hurwitz.

SB: Well, Andy had been talking about making a kids' record for a long time, and I had signed on to it. The original idea was pretty big: we'd get Blue Note to do it, and get Dr. John, Cassandra [Wilson], Macy Gray. That didn't happen; we couldn't get label support for it, so I said, "I'll just produce it myself. But the whole thing had been kind of unclear the whole time as to what we would do. So I said, "Okay, so what are we doing to do? Is it with two singers? I couldn't figure out if it was this thing where we go through the history of jazz. He'd talked about it being this multi-artist thing.

So I'd been hearing songs done with different bands—a Dixieland band, an Art Blakey band. And I suddenly realized we didn't have the option to do that. I had to come up with a record with one band that can do a bunch of different stuff. So the first thing I said was, "I have to have [keyboardist] John Medeski. People kind of don't really realize how great John Medeski is, because he's so famous for Medeski Martin & Wood. John Medeski is one of the greatest musicians on the planet; he's so heavy, he's so unbelievable. His skills are at such a high level. And I've played with a lot of great musicians. He just has an enormous level of skills. He commits 100% to what he does, and he can do more than just about anybody. He can play any kind of classical music, any kind of bebop music. Obviously, any kind of funk, R&B, gospel. And he's totally psychedelic.



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