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

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People ask, 'how do you write all this different music? You do so many different things.' But my philosophy is that I absorb it and I just put it out. I
Steven BernsteinTrumpeter/composer/arranger Steven Bernstein may be the ultimate Downtown jazz personality. Certainly, he's one of the most ubiquitous and hard-working since he began playing in New York in the 1980s after relocating from California. In addition to playing with, well, everyone, he was a member of the 1990s edition of John Lurie's Lounge Lizards and a co-leader of the 1990s trio Spanish Fly. Meeting producer/impresario Hal Willner (who produced the first Spanish Fly album) led to a long association that's continued to this day—Bernstein having become Willner's indispensable bandleader/arranger for many of his multiartist events, including tributes to artists like Doc Pomus, Harold Arlen and Leonard Cohen. Bernstein's scored films and television shows, done commercial jingles, worked with pop players such as Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull and Sting—you've probably heard his playing even if you've never listened to a single jazz recording, and his reliability in all these musical situations has put him in the enviable position of being able to do what he wants.

In 1995, he formed the quartet Sex Mob, perhaps the archetypal hipster Downtown band, and the first Bernstein group to feature its leader on slide trumpet, a long-disdained instrument that resembles (and is played like) a small trombone. Sex Mob recently released its fifth CD, Sexotica, on the Thirsty Ear label. Bernstein formed his other current band, the nine-piece Millenial Territory Orchestra, in 1999. While this group was formed to pursue Bernstein's fascination with the territory jazz groups of the 1920s and 1930s, its repertoire covers a vast range and includes contemporary tunes like Prince's "Darling Nikki ; MTO's version of this song on the recently-released Sunnyside record MTO Volume 1 has gotten Bernstein attention in media circles not previously interested in the Downtown jazz scene.

Bernstein's easy to interview. He's a natural raconteur and as big a fan of music as he is a player. I spoke with him about Sex Mob, the MTO, his Baby Loves Jazz project, his role in the Levon Helm Band, and much more.

All About Jazz: Are you ready to be interviewed?

Steven Bernstein: Hold on, I'm going to go in the back yard. Let me put a little music on the record player. I still can't stop buying records. I keep saying I'm going to stop. But I went to this street fair and got this Duane Allman: An Anthology (Polydor, 1972). It's actually good, man. It starts with all his sideman stuff. He made a lot of records as a sideman. Hmm, how about this old George Duke album. I have so many records; I'm a little obsessive.

AAJ: Do you just buy used vinyl?

SB: Yeah. Well, I buy CDs. I keep saying I'm not going to buy any more CDs either, but then I'll find some great store when I'm on the road. I was just in Chicago for a day, and we had three hours between shows and I was back at the hotel. I said, "Hey, I think I'm right around the corner from Jazz Record Mart, and sure enough, I was. I had 45 minutes at Jazz Record Mart.

AAJ: Well, I live in Chicago, so I know firsthand that 45 minutes can be $450 spent if you're not careful.

SB: I know. But I walked out with a huge pile. Just getting one from each subject is a huge pile.

AAJ: I'm just glad to talk to a musician who still buys music. A lot of people I interview don't buy records anymore.

SB: Well, that's why I'm kind of a unique musician. People ask, "How do you write all this different music? You do so many different things. But my philosophy is that I absorb it and I just put it out. I'm always getting ideas because I'm always listening to music, constantly buying new CDs. Everything has some idea in it—"Oh, I never heard that before. I write so many arrangements, so I'll think, "Oh, I've got to write an arrangement of this song. Or "I've got to take this lick and throw it into the next thing I write.

AAJ: That's a very good thing to do.

SB: Of course, man! That's how you create a vocabulary. You absorb things. You hear something and use it, but when you retranslate it, it comes out different. It's like with Sex Mob—we'd play a song and people wouldn't even recognize it. And we'd have played it exactly like it was on the record. Literally—as far as the notes. The intention may have been very different, but harmonically, we'd have taken the exact same notes. But people don't recognize it because they're used to hearing the record, and I'm just taking the notes of the record.

AAJ: Context and tone are huge to people. But there's also the fact that some rock people only hear rock. Some jazz people only hear jazz. So if you play something from an area they've never heard, and it's out of the blue for them.

SB: Well, I'll tell you something interesting. The Millennial Territory Orchestra's been such a New York phenomenon—I mean, in the sense that a lot of people know us in this tiny community of people. In this tiny world we're talking about, people know what I do. But now that it's gotten out into other worlds, people have started—as they tend to do—to identify things and categorize them. And I think people have begun to hear what not just me, but a lot of people in New York have been doing. I think with this MTO record, I'm kind of putting out to the world this real combination of everything. We've absorbed everything. That's how we grew up. We're the pre-computer absorption generation.

AAJ: Right—the music has gone straight up to the original hard drive between your ears.

SB: Exactly. On the other hand, there's so much to absorb, and so much to learn, that I'm always getting embarrassed. I had some time off yesterday in the city, so I went to this one store—the only clothing store I like in New York City. They get these really cool clothes from England that nobody else gets. Anyway, they're playing this one song and I recognized it. I knew it was a really famous song. And I can't hear lyrics, so I can't ever tell what a song is by its words. It just sounds like the teacher in "Peanuts. I just hear the drum part, the bass part; I'm seeing the score in my head as I hear it. I looked at the people at the store, this really nice couple, and said, "This is a really famous song, right? What is it? They said, "'Whole Lotta Love' I said, "By The Who? They just gave me a look and said, totally flat, "No, Led Zeppelin. There are some things that everyone in the world knows that I just don't know. I never listened to Led Zeppelin or The Who, so when I hear that stuff, I know it's that kind of music, but I'm not quite sure which one it is.

AAJ: Well, you were in the right zone.

SB: Yeah, I knew it was that. We've been doing "I Can See For Miles for about three years now in Sex Mob. Originally, my wife was with me in the car—she likes to listen to classic rock—and the song came on, and I was like, "Wow, this is cool. What is it? She just looked at me and said, "The Who, 'I Can See For Miles.' It was like asking somebody what that red sign is that says S-T-O-P. But I actually had the song on a record, because I'll just buy a box of rock records for five dollars so I can have them. So I had this Who collection. So I found the song and wrote it out that night. That's a good tune, man.

AAJ: That's one of their best. I love the one-note guitar solo.

SB: Yeah. Anyway, we haven't even started the interview yet.

AAJ: This is the interview. But I guess I will get a little more formal. Let's start by talking about your longstanding nine-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra, which, after a couple of extended residencies at Tonic and the Jazz Standard, finally released its first record on Sunnyside, MTO Volume 1. This group, to some extent, is reflecting your interest in late 1920s-early 1930s jazz bands—the so-called territory bands from the Midwest.

SB:Yeah, and listen—I just got a new collection from Chicago. The first three songs that I transcribed for the band were all from Chicago. I don't think any of them ended up on the first record. Two Tiny Parnhams and one from a guy named Preston Jackson, who was a Chicago trombone player who played with Louis Armstrong. Even though it's not considered a "territory of the territory bands, Chicago had a lot of bands with violin in them. Violin, for whatever reason, was really big in Chicago bands in the twenties. And I really wanted to check out bands that had violin.

AAJ: Well, of course. You have a violin in the group.

SB: So I just listened to one of the records I got at the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago, called something like Black Chicago Bands of the Twenties. [Actually, Hot Stuff: Black Chicago Bands 1922-29, Frog Records], and there's a band called Fess Williams and his Joy Boys, that had three violins! Two trumpets, trombone, three saxophones, three violins, tuba, banjo, piano, drums. And it's unbelievable.

AAJ: Well, if you have three violins, what are they doing? Are they keeping time?

SB: No, sometimes they're playing unison melodies, sometimes they're playing little sax-like soli in harmony. It's an incredible sound. I think there were all these mob clubs with people dancing, and they wanted to dance to sweet tunes, too. So they had violin in the band. I'm pretty sure that's why they all had violins. So yeah, anyway—MTO started off with this twenties thing. I had this interest in the sound. I knew the stuff existed, because I'd seen about a million pictures in all these jazz history books I'd read; there were always these guys in the tuxedos, and they've got the violins, saxophones, clarinets. So I thought, "Let's just bring the sound back and see what happens. We'd take the sound, but not like in some recreation—not making some sort of examples for school programs.

AAJ: Well, MTO doesn't seem like any sort of tribute band that just recreates a style.

SB: No. It's a real band of friends and improvisers.

AAJ: Tell me how this group started out and how it works as a continuous entity.

SB: It started because I had been doing Friday nights at midnight with Sex Mob at Tonic since it opened. And it got really huge. It got to the point that our crowd starting going down, because the crowds were so big at one point that there would be a line of people waiting to get in—you couldn't move. It was that little moment where it was one of those things to do in the summer: go see Sex Mob at midnight. It was before no-smoking; Giuliani hadn't totally clamped down on New York yet. It was the end of having some sense of, "You're in New York. You can do whatever the hell you want. It's one o'clock in the morning in the Lower East Side. This is our zone. Actors, models, that whole thing. People who just wanted to be free to do whatever would come and hang. But then [bassist] Tony [Scherr] and [drummer] Ken [Wollesen] started working with [guitarist] Bill Frisell. Bill hired both of them as his trio; he basically hired my rhythm section.
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