Steven Bernstein: Proud Member of the Pre-Computer Absorption Generation
AAJ: Well, Sharon Jones is a fantastic singer. You may not have gotten those huge names, but she's as good as anyone out there.
SB: She's better than anyone out there, because she's out there singing R&B every day of her life in front of huge audiences. There aren't a lot of people who can say that. In fact [laughing], I don't think there's anyone who can say that!
AAJ: And with no pitch correction. What do kids like? What do kids want in music?
SB: Kids like repetition. Kids like something where they can figure out what's happeninglike if number one happens, then the next thing that should happen is number two. And it should be concise; there are no improvised solos on the record. Everything goes from event to event to event. I wrote these little solos, kind of like Dizzy Gillespie would use in the fifties. So instead of a solo, a kind of a bebop version of the melody is played, like a mini-big-band thing. So you can always hear the melody; the melody is always being referred to.
AAJ: When I was a kid, I just liked the words.
SB: We have the words there too, but I think the rhythm is really important. We had all the kids dancing at the shows. Some of the kids dance naturally to the music, this kind of crazy Little Richard meets punk-rock edition of the hokey-pokey. All the kids up there wiggling and dancing around.
AAJ: You're the bandleader for these ongoing tributes to singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, Came So Far For Beauty. This produced the film I'm Your Man and the record of the same name. Were you a Cohen fan?
SB: Nope, nope. I'd never really heard him. Just another Hal Willner job. Hal called me up and said he wanted me to help him put together this concert, because he knows I'm good at organizing things. It was a multi-artist tribute, and Hal being Hal, he wanted us to do forty songs, he had three rehearsal days, and some of the musicians weren't coming in until the day of the concert [laughing]. So you have maybe nine, ten different artists.
So I think we had forty songs, with the contingency, you know, that David Bowie or some other ridiculously famous person might show upwe had to be able to handle that. So I put together this band which was basically Sex Mob and Charlie Burnham from MTO on violin, Marc Ribot on guitar and Rob Berger from Tin Hat Trio on keyboards. And we just did it, and it was a huge success, and this woman who was kind of related to our general family of musicians came up and said, "I've seen all the different things you've done for Hal, but this is different, this is brilliant, and blah-blah-blah. She produces Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson. She said, "I want to produce this. So I've done these things for Hal before that have happened once. You do a concert for Hal, and you do it for no money. Musicians are paid one or two hundred dollars each. That's for three rehearsals and an all-day gig. You do it because you love working for Hal; everyone loves Hal, and everyone knows that when there is money, Hal is happy to give it. And when there isn't, he just wants to do a project.
This is actually the first time I've done music where I can actually understand every word to every song. And I realize that's because they're not songs, they're stories.
AAJ: Yes, Cohen was a writer before he was a musician.
SB: Yeah, and so it's really easy for me to know what he's talking about. Oftentimes with songs, I'll start listening to the words and then I just get distracted. I start listening to the bass or the drums and then I realize I have no idea what they're saying. But with Leonard Cohen, you're just hearing the story go by, so it's very easy to stay focused on the story.
AAJ: You still had to arrange the songs musically.
SB: Yeah. But luckily, I had all my guys and gals up there, so it wasn't that hard.
AAJ: You're a member of former The Band drummer/singer Levon Helm's group. You're a big part of these Midnight Rambles up at his studio in Woodstock.
SB: People are beginning to hear about these now, I guess.
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 timeback 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 improvisationjust listening and reacting.
But this kind of R&B music that he playsI don't even know how to describe what he does. It's like folk-gospel-R&B-blues-jazz.