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Steven Bernstein and The Millennial Territory Orchestra rely on beautiful chaos

Steven Bernstein
c/o the artist
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Steven Bernstein

Born and raised in Berkeley, Calif., trumpeter and composer Steven Bernstein has been a fixture on the New York City jazz scene for more than 30 years, leading numerous bands including SexMob, Spanish Fly and the Butler-Bernstein Hot Nine (with pianist Henry Butler). He founded the large ensemble, The Millennial Territory Orchestra (MTO), after working on the Robert Altman jazz-themed film Kansas City back in 1995. The film’s focus on early jazz inspired Bernstein to create a group that could play the music of territory bands from the period before the Big Band Era. Featuring many of the stalwart players on the New York City jazz scene, this unique big band is in the process of releasing four new albums over the course of about a year.

I spoke with Bernstein about the origins of that group, its unusual instrumentation and focus, and how it came to its recent spate of releases. MTO is playing a show dedicated to the music of James Brown at the City Winery on Nov. 22, with special guests including Vernon Reid and Corey Glover of Living Colour, as well as Alicia Olatuja and Leon Pendarvis.

Watch our conversation here:

Steven Bernstein interview by Lee Mergner

Interview transcript: 

Lee Mergner: One of the groups you founded and you still lead is The Millennial Territory Orchestra or MTO, which has had a very busy year. But before we talk about that busy year, tell us about its original founding and the concept behind it.

Steven Bernstein: What happened was in 1995 I worked with the late Hal Willner, the great concert producer, record producer, visionary, and the kind of person who helped bring me into this world of a higher level of music making. He was working on a Robert Altman film called Kansas City. Many of your listeners may be familiar with this movie. If not, I would advise checking it out, though it was maybe not Robert Altman's greatest. As an auteur, he just made movies because that's what he did. And I think he was really more concerned with the process of moviemaking, as opposed to necessarily making a hit film. But this was an amazing film that took place in Kansas City in 1935.

Basically, the movie took place inside of a club called The High Hope Club, and we had a band that was playing live in the club, as the filming happened. If you heard music while there was dialogue, that music was live. That band that Hal and I put together had Josh Redman, James Carter, Fathead Newman, Jesse Davis, Don Byron and Craig Handy on saxophones. With Clark Guyton and Curtis Fowlkes on trombone. Nick Payton, Olu Dara, James Zollar on trumpet. Geri Allen and Cyrus Chestnut on piano. Ron Carter and Christian McBride on bass, Victor Lewis on drums, Kevin Mahogany on vocals. The guitar players were Russell Malone and Mark Whitfield.

It was an amazing once in a lifetime experience, not for me, but I think for movies in general, because we had actual jazz musicians, not studio musicians, playing music while the filming was going on. There were incredible tenor battles. There was a Josh Redman and Craig Handy tenor battle. Each person had a character to play. One person was Ben Webster, one was Coleman Hawkins, one person was Lester Young. Not that they necessarily needed to emulate them, as if copying them, but the idea of embodying their spirit.

This was before there was YouTube on the internet. Any information you were looking for, you couldn't just Google it and get it right. So every week I'd go to Hal's office before the filming and he'd have five or six cassette tapes. On them he had recorded these historical records. My job was to have all that music in my ear, almost like in in film they have like a continuity person who makes sure that if it’s an historical piece that the cars look right and that the hats look right.

Well, I was like the continuity with the music. I ended up being the arranger. Coming back from that process, I had all this music in my head, really incredible music. Not just Count Basie, but Andy Kirk, Harlan Leonard and his Rockets, and Cecil Scott. I said to myself, “Why don't I see what would happen if we played this music now?” Because no one's really played this music, it became a dead end and led to the Big Band Era. It didn't really continue. I had a regular Friday at midnight gig at Tonic for Sex Mob and Bill Frisell had hired my rhythm section and I didn't have a band, so I said, “Well, I have a Friday night, so why don't I put together a band that's gonna explore this music of the ‘20s and early ‘30s?” That's how it all started.

There have always been people like Vince Giordano, who do a historical version of this music, but I was more interested in what would happen if we just played this music. The history of jazz musicians has been to take songs and explore them on their own terms with whatever rhythmic and harmonic and extra-musical kind of ideas they may have.

Is the instrumentation along the lines of a typical band of that time of the ‘20s?

What I did was I combined the music of turn of the century New Orleans and the territory bands. The territory bands had three reeds in general. It wasn't a full big band reed section of five. You almost always saw a three-person reed section. There were usually three brass players. Some bands had violin. I'd also been exploring these great early New Orleans recordings that had had violin. Oftentimes, trumpet and violin used to be a double, meaning a person who plays more than one instrument. The reason they did that was that to be a professional musician, you would play the violin for what would be called a sweet song and a trumpet for a hot song. My idea was, instead of a third brass, to have a violin playing in the brass section. I originally started with a banjo and then I switched to guitar after four or five gigs. I just felt like the guitar gave it more options. It's an amplified guitar, but a hollow body guitar, so it's resonant. And then three reeds, clarinet, tenor and baritone, with the top reed being a clarinet. But also the tenor and baritone double on soprano, because there was something that they used to call a clarinet trio.

It used to be in a lot of this music from the ‘20s where in the middle of the song it would sometimes change keys, but oftentimes switch to a section where there were three high reeds playing a new melody. That's a very typical trope of that era. It was something I wanted to explore. You have this kind of one thing going on and suddenly it breaks and you have these three high voices creating a new section. It's a little bit like the whole Nirvana quiet-loud thing that happened later. It was an earlier version of that sound to create a new musical event.

Who are some of the illustrious or even regular members of the group? I assume that you have to rotate people just like with any larger ensemble.

I do, but I've basically had the same band now for close to 20 years. Ben Allison has been there since the beginning on bass. Ben Perowsky has been there since very close to the beginning on drums. On clarinet we have Doug Wieselman, though Chris Speed was the original clarinet player. Peter Apfelbuam has been in the tenor chair since the beginning, though Michael Blake has also played that chair a lot. Erik Lawrence is on baritone though sometimes Briggan Krauss from SexMob plays the baritone chair. Curtis Fowlkes on trombone from the Kansas City movie, but originally it was Clark Guyton, also from the Kansas City movie, on trombone. It's always been Charlie Burnham on violin and Sam Barfield plays it when Charlie can't do it. It was originally Doug Wamble on guitar. Matt Munisteri been playing it for close to about 18 years now, but Doug will still come and make it when Matt can't. They both sing with the band also.

In the span of about 12 months, it seemed like you released, or are in the process of releasing, four albums by the MTO. How did the pandemic play into that prolific output?

Believe it or not, it was recorded like one month before the lockdown. I received a grant to record my music from the Shifting Foundation. This was a grant to create something. As an arranger, I kind of live in a shadow world. As the great arranger Van Dyke Parks said to me, “Well, Steven, you know, we're the custodians of the music business.” We’re pretty necessary, but we're the guys there at night cleaning everything up, so we don't get the glory. No one gives you a Guggenheim for being an arranger. It's a very hidden job.

I've written so many arrangements. In fact, I love writing arrangements. It's a passion with me. Sometimes you write an arrangement and they're never heard. You might just rehearse them and someone cuts it from a show. With all the people I've lost in the past couple years, I've been quite aware of our limited time on the planet so when these grant people came to me, I said that I'd really like to document my arrangements.

It was not about making records. We weren't entering the studio with a desire to say, “This is gonna be the ultimate take, it's gonna be the record, it's gonna get a big review, and blah, blah, blah.” All I wanted to do was document music I'd written. My plan was to go in every day to have plenty of food for the musicians, to have everyone in a mellow mood, with none of this video crap. I don't want people having to feel like they have to dress up and I don't want anyone in the room except for the musicians. The idea is to record a song once or twice and get a real take, whatever that may be.

Everyone was focusing only on the moment and playing that music as if you're playing live and then move on. What happened was I ended up with four days with guys in the same chair. The first day was kind of a warmup day, so we recorded my arrangements of other people's songs. The second day we recorded my original compositions, many of which had never been played from beginning to end. Some of them we had performed, some of them we just kind of rehearsed. On the third day, Catherine Russell came in to record this music I had arranged for her, really with the intention of having some demo songs to get some gigs.

And the fourth day, I wanted to record the music I had done with Henry Butler. I had this band, The Hot Nine, with Henry which had put out a record on Impulse, and was really a successful band. And Henry had passed away and we'd never actually recorded the band cause I don't know if you ever heard the record, but the record is done with her and Riley and Reginald Veal. It was a pickup date. Obviously these are the absolute best guys at what they do. But in the interim, after making that record, we had started a band with Donald Edwards and Brad Jones. We really created something unique because Henry had a very forceful way. He showed Donald and Brad how to achieve this certain kind of rhythmic loca motion that he wanted. And I want to just document it because we'd never recorded with the band.

Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein
Courtesy of the artist
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Pianist Henry Butler (left) and arranger and trumpeter Steven Bernstein

But there's never gonna be another Henry Butler, so it wasn't like we could redo that music with another piano player and say, “Oh, play like Henry,” because that's not gonna happen. So I had John Medeski come and play organ because I felt that would create a different enough environment that we wouldn't feel that we were trying to imitate what we did with Henry. I did bring Arturo O’Farrill in to play two pieces on acoustic piano, because Arturo is the piano player who has the physical connection to Henry. Both of those guys rock a piano. It’s very hard to move an acoustic piano, but when those guys play, you see the piano moving back and forth. They both play with so much physical intensity.

That’s the story, but they’re not records. The lockdown starts and there's nothing to do, right? The engineer and I decided to get together and start mixing the original music because that was the stuff that was new. Eventually because none of us were working and people weren't really comfortable doing live sessions and because we wanted to do something with our time, we ended up mixing all four days. My friend Kevin Calabro at Royal Potato said to me, “Man, why don't we put all four of these out as each day being its own record?” I said, “Man, that is so audacious. Let's do it.” And we put out a record every four months and we got some really great press, including from WBGO, from The New York Times, from The Wall Street Journal, from DownBeat. It was great because there weren't gigs, but there was this feeling of forward motion as the music kept coming out.

This week the MTO has a very special show at City Winery in New York on Nov. 22. Another sort of left turn or right turn, it's the music of James Brown and you have quite a lineup of special guests.

Yeah, this lineup is incredible. I've known Vernon Reid since I was 19 years old. When I started playing in bands in New York, I ran into a whole bunch of wild downtown people. Vernon and I played in a band called Jessica Hagadorn and the Gangster Choir. Vernon’s playing, and Corey Glover, also from Living Colour. We have Eric Mingus, who is just one of the most amazing electrifying performers. And a great singer whom I actually met at the WBGO 40th Anniversary Gala, Alicia Olatuja. And the ultra coolest person in New York, the legendary Leon Pendarvis on organ. Leon is the champagne of funk. He is just one of these musicians who's got the greatest ears, the greatest feel. And then I have my nine-piece band that I've had for 20 years.

We're really looking at James Brown's work the same way I would do Duke Ellington, same way I would do anything. Of course, we’re gonna play some of the funky tunes that everyone knows, but there's a lot I didn't know about. Like I didn't know about songs like “Prisoner of Love.” Before he was writing the funk songs, he was writing songs that were somewhere between what we would call Great American Songbook and doo-wop. Songs with melodies and chord changes and they were really great songs. We’re doing a song “Down & Out in New York City,” from the movie Black Caesar.

Watch Steven Bernstein, Corey Glove and an all-star ensemble perform “Down & Out in New York City” at the City Winery in NYC:

Corey Glover sings "Down & Out in New York City”

I don't want to give away too much because I like to surprise people, but if you're just a funk fan and want to have a party, it's a great party. We’re not just doing the obvious. I don't like the idea of redoing things. I like the idea of exploring, learning, creating, and of course chaos. A little chaos goes a long way.

Because it's such iconic music, it's almost like you have to do something different, right?

Exactly. And you just don’t play it like the way it was on the record. The thing is he didn't even do that. That's a great thing about YouTube. If you start exploring how he did his songs, he always had new arrangements, new tempos, new introductions, all kinds of stuff. This is the third time we've done it, but every time we do it, obviously, I want to have it be a little different. Some brand new chaos because, to me, the beauty of jazz is that mystery of what's gonna happen at this moment with this audience today. That's the difference between our music and other music.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”