Prince can heat up a Detroit night with his slippery tongue and quivering guitar vamps. Trumpet player Steven Bernstein can do as much for a New York jazz club with his slide trumpet and an eight-piece band. On one of his Monday night residency performances last month at the Jazz Standard, Bernstein's group the Millennial Territory Orchestra covered "Darling Nikki". Prince's lithe, grinding seductress from the hotel lobby vanished. In her place strolled in a burlesque queen from the ‘30s. She made you shudder with a flash of her garter. That's what happens when Bernstein decides a melody's strong enough for one of his bands. You think something can't get any sexier. Add seductively sloppy strings and brass and an audience can barely handle itself.
His quartet Sex Mob garnered honorary double agent status with the release of Sex Mob Does Bond
(Ropeadope, 2001). Nirvana's "About A Girl", and Abba's "Fernando" show up on Solid Sender
(Knitting Factory, 2000). And live, the band's been known to play anything from Britney Spears to Strauss. Whatever the repertoire, insidious nighttime demons meander through each phrase, and sly spirits dribble genuine fun into each blow of the horn.
"Music should be about life - about feeling something," Bernstein explained. "It's about creation. Also it's okay to fuck up. I really feel that an audience who goes to see a band that almost f*cks up and kind of gets slightly unhinged is going to have a better experience than an audience that goes to see a show that's perfectly controlled. If you want something perfectly controlled you turn on the TV, go see a movie, watch a music video, something that's been edited, and chopped up into something exact."
With the Millennial Territory Orchestra he cues solos with the point of a finger and halts phrases with a shrug of his shoulders. Meanwhile he's cracking jokes and spurting out occasional slide trumpet attacks. With the smaller group, Sex Mob, he's able to play more, leading the group with his own phrasing.
"Sometimes when it really, really, really gets going, I feel like I'm actually a conductor, like something that conducts electricity. I remember one night, I felt like all the intensity of the musicians was going through my body. I went home and I was in bed and my body was shaking, because I had so much energy that had gone through my body that night." His fans feel the energy too. They whoop and howl along with the music, waving their arms in abandon. Perhaps the captivating melodies provide the satisfaction that brings them back each night. Or maybe it's the excursions into free jazz cacophony. Most likely it's a combination of the two.
"The beauty of playing the music that I do is that it's now, and it's gonna happen, and it may get to a point where 'whoa!', and no one's really sure what's happening, and it's a little chaotic. But eventually it's going to come together into something that makes you feel good. That's why I like to play something like 'All You Need Is Love'. We usually start it with something really chaotic, and when you finally get there it's like ahhhh it feels so good."
Sex Mob's next album Dime Grind Palace
(out next month on Ropeadope) is comprised entirely of original compositions. When it's time to write a record, the trumpet player locks himself in his "music laboratory" at the back of his house. Records and instruments hang on the walls. He flutters around between old 78s, his piano, and his trumpet.
"I get into a zone to see what happens. I just try to open up and see what comes out," he explained. The process can last a couple of days or a couple of weeks but it doesn't end until he fills an entire notebook. "About three days before a recording session I'll start going through and say, 'oh that's good, why don't I take that and put that on top of that'. It's basically impressions of my mind. I try to take all the impressions and make a coherent statement."
The slide trumpet (also known as a soprano trombone) has a sound slightly foreign to most listeners' ears. Aside from some LA studio musicians in the '70s and '80s, and perhaps Louis Armstrong, no one seems to play the difficult instrument, and Bernstein has yet to find a recording.
"I guess I have a little less pride than most people do and don't mind making a fool out of myself," Bernstein said. "The people I'm inspired by are trombone players who really use their slide. There's two ways to play a trombone, one is a very vocal style where you slip all around, and then there are other guys that play like a piano. I like to play with a lot of sliding. That's the fun part of it, the fact that it sounds like a human voice and is all over the place."
He plays regular trumpet on most of the jobs he gets hired for. Linda Ronstadt nabbed him for her forthcoming album; Visa used his music in a commercial featuring Derek Jeter and George Steinbrenner; and he plays on bassist Mario Pavone's latest disc Mythos
(Playscape, 2003). The only musician who's been able to accept the sound of the slide trumpet on his albums is Lou Reed. A hot commodity in the music world, Bernstein's just taking it as it comes. "Some people plan their life. It doesn't matter how you get there if you don't know where you're going. It allows me to travel through life and smell the flowers," he said. Other projects have included a couple of film scores including Get Shorty
and Kansas City
; he led John Lurie's Lounge Lizards; composed music for animated TV shows; and released two discs on John Zorn's Tzadik label, Diaspora Blues
(2002), and Diaspora Soul
"I try to show up on time and wear the right clothes," He said of his luck in the job market. "It's important. They'll hire you back." One day last month Bernstein showed off his fashion sense at Madison Square Park where he played a few tunes to kick off a summer concert series. In soft leather loafers from Amsterdam, seersucker trousers from Edmonton, a Swiss shirt and Kangol cap, he was a vision in baby blue. Nice clothes make Bernstein happy. As does sitting in the sunshine on a summer day. If the trumpeter's music is a true reflection of who he is, you can believe it's chock full of exuberance, passion, and a relentless drive to keep going.