Steven Bernstein In 5 Songs
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On The Corner Masthead

STEVEN BERNSTEIN In 5 Songs

September 13, 2018 | by Rusty Aceves

Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein

Trumpeter and composer Steven Bernstein has led a wildly diverse career, from the avant-garde of New York’s Downtown scene in the 1980s to music direction for film and work with artists ranging from Elton John and U2 to Sam Rivers and the late Henry Butler. He takes up residency in the Joe Henderson Lab this week with his rollicking Sex Mob quartet and the West Coast iteration of his Millennial Territory Orchestra, and to celebrate we take a look back at just five memorable moments from his enormous catalog of recordings.

1. "One Big Yes" — The Lounge Lizards from Live In Berlin, Vol. 2 (1992)

Bernstein made an early impression as part of the third and final version of saxophonist John Lurie’s legendary post No Wave band. This track, anchored by the interlocking rhythms of future Medeski, Martin, and Wood drummer Billy Martin on percussion and former Ornette Coleman & Prime Time drummer G. Calvin Weston, is a brilliant showcase for Bernstein’s freewheeling solo approach.

2. "Folk Song" — Spanish Fly from Rags To Britches (1994)

The trumpeter formed this rambunctious quartet in the early 90s featuring slide guitarist David Tronzo, tuba player Marcus Rojas, and drummer Ben Perowsky – all stalwarts of the vibrant NYC scene centered around the old Knitting Factory club on Houston Street. Recorded live at the Knitting Factory, Bernstein’s arrangement of a traditional folk melody blends the experimental spirit of the scene with an intoxicating gutbucket stomp.

3. "Kitchen" — Sex Mob from Dime Grind Palace (2003)

The introductory saxophone wail from Briggan Krauss sets the listener’s expectation for this track from Sex Mob’s third album, in which ecstatic flights of improvisation skip across a skeletal James Brown groove, like a once-subdued house party having gone off the rails. Bernstein’s distorted slide trumpet squeals and slides near the end of the track recall not so much a brass instrument as Jimi Hendrix’s guitar.

4. "Volpina" — Sex Mob from Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sex Mob plays Fellini (2013)

Drummer Kenny Wolleson’s driving second line rhythms take this theme from Nino Rota’s score to Fellini’s Amarcord from fascist Italy of the 1930s to the streets of Tremé, with a suitably inspired solo by the leader and some deeply funky baritone saxophone from Briggan Krauss. This is Sex Mob at its best, repurposing memorable tunes and twisting them into prime vehicles for wildly inventive soloing.

5. "King Porter Stomp" — Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9 from Viper’s Drag (2017)

Bernstein joined forces with New Orleans piano king Henry Butler to co-lead this superb large ensemble devoted to blues, R&B, swing, and Caribbean sounds from around the Crescent City. Their virtuoso take on this Jelly Roll Morton classic is a tour de force for Bernstein’s arranging skills. The track plays fast and loose with stylistic elements, spicing up the airtight blues shuffle with a New Orleans funereal opening, calypso asides and tons of call-and-response.

BONUS TRACK:

6. "We are MTO" — Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra from We Are MTO (2008)

Bernstein’s masterful arranging is again at the fore on this original composition, with densely layered winds and brass alternating with spacious solo turns by violinist Charlie Burnham, trombonist Clark Gayton, and clarinetist Doug Wieselman. As the title suggests, this is a definitive statement of this band’s point of view. The West Coast version includes Bay Area-based greats including saxophonist Howard Wiley, trombonist Jeff Cressman, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and more.