From his career-defining work on the score to Robert Altman's film Kansas City to his recent arrangements for producer Hal Wilner's various projects, trumpeter Steven Bernstein has ascended from the ranks of the underground to attain a level of recognition that few musicians of his caliber receive.
Bernstein's rough and tumble Sex Mob quartet has been tearing down musical boundaries for well over a decade, but it is his large ensemble, the Millennial Territory Orchestra (MTO), that offers the most complete view of his multifarious abilities. Conducting a phenomenal group of soloists, he limits his wildly expressive brass excursions to brief interludes, proving himself a magnanimous bandleader as well as a stellar arranger.
Inspired by his work on Kansas City, Bernstein established the MTO to update the vintage sounds of 1920s and 30s Midwestern territory bands for a new century. Featuring the same line-up as MTO Volume 1 (Sunnyside, 2006), We Are MTO is both more relaxed and adventurous than their delightful debut.
Continuing a tradition established by Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, the MTO offers stirring avant-garde interpretations of classic swing tunes and contemporary pop hits, such as "All You Need Is Love." After a brief, blistering fanfare, the band settles into a dreamy rumination on the aforementioned Beatles song led by Doug Wieselman's silver-toned clarinet. As the tune leisurely gains momentum, it builds to a blustery finale of gospel-inspired ardor. Don Redman's "Paducah" follows a similar path, trafficking in a down-home blues groove bookended by testimonial fervor.
Other rootsy classics, like the Ray Charles vehicle "Makes No Difference" and Fats Waller's "Viper Song" are given soulfully droll vocal renditions by guitarist Matt Munisteri and guest guitarist Doug Wamble. The band summons the vivacious swing of the thirties on "In a Corner" and "Dickies Dream." The rhythmically infectious tunes deliver a series of pithy solos, the former ends on a pneumatic run from Erik Lawrence's baritone, the later spotlights a spiky acoustic duet between the guitarists.
Moving conceptually forward in time to invoke the legacy of Funkadelic, the opening title track spotlights Charles Burnham's raspy violin shadowed by Munisteri's heavily reverbed guitar and the languid backbeats of bassist Ben Allison and drummer Ben Perowsky. Preston Jackson's "Its Tight Jim" closes the album much as it began, transforming a rousing New Orleans vamp into a grinding funk groove peppered with a thicket of polyphonic horns led by Peter Apfelbaum's explosive tenor.
Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra conjures the primal elation of Pre-War swing bands without falling victim to the past; their interpretations are not intended to be historically accurate, but they capture the enthusiasm of early jazz with a passion few contemporary musicians can. Accessible, joyous and soulful, We Are MTO is Bernstein's most heartfelt and purely enjoyable recording to date.
We Are MTO; In a Corner; Makes No Difference; All You Need Is Love; Paducah; Dickies Dream; Viper Song; Its Tight Jim.
Steven Bernstein: trumpet, slide trumpet; Clark Gayton: trombone; Charles Burnham: violin; Doug Wieselman: clarinet, tenor saxophone; Peter Apfelbaum: tenor and soprano saxophones; Erik Lawrence: baritone and soprano saxophones; Matt Munisteri: guitar, vocal; Ben Allison: bass; Ben Perowsky: drums; Doug Wamble: guitar, banjo and vocal (6, 7).