Making Cents Of It All: Jazz Enters The Money Jungle
When director Robert Altman hired Steven Bernstein as the associate music producer for his jazz-soaked film, Kansas City (1996), the trumpeter began to immerse himself in the music of the '20s and '30s. Music producer Hal Willner passed along recordings of Kansas City groups and various territory bands, allowing Bernstein to internalize the music of this era and this, ultimately, led to his formation of the Millennial Territory Orchestra. This band doesn't just borrow the word "territory" in its title, but it actually provides a modern spin on an 80 year-old sound.
While the band made its first appearances at the now-defunct Tonic in 1999 in New York City, they didn't actually record their first proper CD until six years later. MTO Volume 1 (Sunnyside, 2006) features a wide range of songs, including re-imagined hippie anthems (The Grateful Dead's "Ripple") and a reworked version of a Motown masterpiece (Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"), but it also touches on material from the same period when territory bands roamed the land. Their take on another Bing Crosby-associated number, "Pennies From Heaven," is one of the standout tracks on their debut.
The song was originally featured in a 1936 Crosby movie of the same name and, as opposed to "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime," the song largely carries a more uplifting, if unrealistic, message. On Bernstein's version, guitarist-banjoist-singer Matt Munisteri is the clear star, providing an introduction for the band and delivering a perky vocal that's as cheery as the title. The horns perfectly capture the sound of that period, a saxophone solo provides some mid-track contrast, and the rhythm section is superb, creating a solid and swinging foundation for the band. While pennies, or dimes for that matter, don't go very far in this inflationary age, the concept of money falling from the sky is something that anybody can still smile about.
Herbie Hancock is an American musical icon, with countless classic recordings under his belt, numerous awards testifying to his importance, and the respect of the music community in every corner of the world, but he didn't start out that way. When Hancock arrived in New York, approximately fifty years ago, he was a relative unknown and, despite his meteoric rise, he spent this period of time paying his dues like any other professional musician-in-the-making.
About a year before Hancock first recorded with Miles Davis, and after he had already been featured on record with trumpeter Donald Byrd's group, the pianist went into the studio to record his debut, Takin' Off (Blue Note, 1962). While the opening track on that record ("Watermelon Man") would become one of the most identified and oft-covered jazz standards in history, another song testified to the life of the struggling musician. "Empty Pockets" was a reference to Hancock's fiscal woes at the time, confirmed by his own admission"I was in a sad financial state when I wrote this"in Leonard Feather's original liner note. While this expertly crafted blues didn't make waves like "Watermelon Man," it still provides plenty of enjoyable moments. Billy Higgins' inimitable swing underscores the whole thing, while Butch Warren locks everything in place. Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon both solo with appropriately bluesy sentiments, but Hancock remains the star of the song, digging deeper than the other soloists on this soulful blues.
While the financial crisis in the United States isn't going away anytime soon, it's nice to know that we can still sit back and smile while listening to these musical expositions on a theme of financial hardship. Feel free to respond with your favorite money-related material or depression-era ditty and stay tuned for more Old, New Borrowed and Blue.