Steven Bernstein: Big Four Live & The Harlem Experiment

Kurt Gottschalk By

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Big Four (Nagl, Bernstein, Akchote, Jones)
Big Four Live

Various Artists
The Harlem Experiment

Retro playing is always a bit of a gambit. Musicians often in the act of recreation lose the sense of creation. Whatever his secret is, trumpeter Steven Bernstein has always been able to rise above stale retreads, bringing a sense of exuberance to almost everything he plays.

But if he sometimes plays with a smirk, in saxophonist Max Nagl's band Big Four, the effort is purely musical. While harkening back to the 1940 Sidney Bechet record Big Four, the quartet (with Noel Akchoté on guitar and Brad Jones on bass) isn't trying to recreate a classic album. Instead, they're borrowing a vibe and mixing it with their own idiosyncratic styles. Their new live disc is all original compositions, though Nagl's "Monx and Bernstein's "Artie Shaw give indication to their direction. The band fluidly works between heads that could pass for standards and blurrier passages. With years under his belt working for the likes of Roy Nathanson and Muhal Richard Abrams, Jones is the perfect man to negotiate their twisting trails and without a drummer he often provides the pulse alone. Akchoté is the odd man out here but he proves excellent at comping rhythm and fitting solos and on Bernstein's "Teahouse Tango gets a solo passage for his own quiet noise.

The Harlem Experiment also seeks to evoke place and time without dressing in period costumes. Following his Philadelphia and Detroit "experiments , producer Aaron "Ace Levinson has assembled a house band (this time featuring Bernstein, Don Byron, Carlos Alomar and Steve Berrios) and brought in some singers (including Queen Esther, Taj Mahal and Olu Dara) to try to boil down the area's rich musical history. Mixing pop, swing and samba with bits of R&B, rap and turntabling and adding in some familiar songs ("Reefer Man , "A Rose in Spanish Harlem ), Levinson and company pull off a diverse, spirited and quite enjoyable set, remembering, but not trying to relive, the past.

Tracks and Personnel

Big Four Live

Tracks: Radiergummi; Artie Shaw; Monx; New Viper Dance; Teahouse Tango; Big Four; Ring A Ring; Muddy; Muggles 2000.

Personnel: Max Nagl: alto saxophone; Steven Bernstein: trumpet; Noel Akchote: guitar; Bradley Jones: bass.

The Harlem Experiment

Tracks: Intro; One for Jackie; Rigor Mortis; Reefer Man; Harlem River Drive; Bei Mir Bist du Schoen; Mum's Interlude; It's Just Begun; Mambo a la Savoy; A Rose in Spanish Harlem; One for Malcolm; Lil' Bit; Think; A Rose in Spanish Harlem (instrumental); Walking Through Harlem.

Personnel: various

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