Diaspora Suite is the fourth installment of trumpeter Steven Bernstein's Diaspora series, which explores the connections between Jewish melodic traditions and contemporary styles. And it may be the most personal. The six-hour session was recorded in Oakland, CaliforniaBernstein's hometownand included musicians he's played with since grade school: multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, trombonist Jeff Cressman and drummer Josh Jones. The nonet is completed with additional drummer Scott Amendola, electric bassist Devin Hoff, clarinetist Ben Goldberg and the twin guitars of Nels Cline and John Schott (with additional post-session guitar "sweeteners from Will Bernard).
The thick instrumentation nods to the Bay Area psychedelic bands whose sounds filled the air during Bernstein's youth, while the horns, particularly the clarinet, evoke tradition. In a first, Bernstein composed all the music, filtering years of transcribing, arranging and performing cantorial music for his Diaspora bands. As another departure, the session was not specifically arranged but was allowed to develop conversationally. Inspired by the late director Robert Altman, with whom Bernstein worked on the film Kansas City (1996), and who was known for encouraging actors to improvise, he ceded some control to his illustrious cast.
The results are suite-like, with the tunes often segueing and themes surfacing from the sonic cauldron, such as the unison horn line of "Simeon arising from Apfelbaum's bleating tenor sax. Like their namesakes, the twelve tribes of Israel, the pieces are related, but have their own personalities. The spacey guitar atmospherics backing the ghostly trumpet melody on "Reuben contrast the underpinning taut guitar and bass ostinato of "Naphtali." Another repeating guitar phrase cushions "Asher," while heavy riffs and plodding drums set the tone on "Benjamin for a soaring Cressman run and intense Goldberg retort.
With only Apfelbaum present for the New York CD-release party at Jazz Standard Feb. 10th, 2008, Bernstein assembled an East Coast lineup. Fellow Bay-area ex-pats included clarinetist Norbert Stachel, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Wollesen, who were joined by drummer Billy Martin, trombonist Josh Roseman and guitarists Steve Cardenas and Brandon Ross. The sequence mostly followed the recording, but stretched out in swirling forays. Bernstein spontaneously cued the musicians, prodding tempos and shifting dynamics. The pliability of the music allowed for surprising twists: Dunn's galloping groove on "Dan spurring the horn section; Martin's percussive flurry introducing "Gad and ushering in Stachel's ominous contrabass clarinet drones and Bernstein urging the tempo of "Zebulon for an incendiary Ross spotlight that morphed into a ferocious simultaneous guitar, tenor sax, 'bone and clarinet improvisation.
Steven Bernstein: trumpet; Jeff Cressman: trombone; Peter Apfelbaum: tenor saxophone,flute, qarqabas; Ben Goldberg: clarinet, contra alto clarinet; Nels Cline: electric guitar; John Schott: electric guitar; Will Bernard: electric guitar sweeteners; Devin Hoff: electric bass; Josh Jones: drums, percussion; Scott Amendola: drums.