TGD catches up with Steven Bernstein, trumpeter, slide trumpeter, arranger/composer and bandleader from New York City. He is best known for his work with Millennial Territory Orchestra, Sex Mob, Spanish Fly and The Lounge Lizards. And much more...
STEVEN BERNSTEIN BIOGRAPHY
Steven Bernstein is a trumpeter/slide trumpeter, bandleader, arranger, and composer who lives outside of musical convention. He has released four critically acclaimed CDs – Diaspora Soul, Diaspora Blues (featuring the Sam Rivers trio), Diaspora Hollywood., and Diaspora Suite. All four are on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.
His band Sexmob has been together since 1995 touring the world, won numerous awards, and has had their music featured on MTV, Saturday Night Live and NPR. Sexotica, recorded for Thirsty Ear’s Blue series, was nominated for a Grammy in 2006.. Their most recent CD, Sex Mob meets Medeski was recorded live at the Willisau Jazz Festival.
His nine-piece ensemble, the Millennial Territory Orchestra, has released two CDs, MTO Vol 1 and We Are MTO. Their upcoming CD, MTO Plays Sly, features Bernie Worrell, Vernon Reid, Antony, Martha Wainright, Dean Bowman, Sandra St Victor and Shilpa Ray, and is slated for a September 2011 release . MTO was formed in 1999 for a series of Midnight shows at Tonic, and spent a year and a half long residency at the Jazz Standard. Bernstein also arranged and co-produced Baby Loves Jazz, featuring vocalists Sharon Jones and Babi Floyd, along with keyboard master John Medeski. The CD is available on Verve records.
Since November 2004 Bernstein has been a member of the Levon Helm band, playing at the Midnight Rambles in Levon’s home in Woodstock. Bernstein wrote horn arrangements for Levon Helm’s Grammy winning 2009 recording Electric Dirt, as well as Bill Frissel’s Grammy winning 2004 recording Unspeakable. Other arranging credits include Lou Reed, Rufus Wainright, Marianne Faithfull, Elton John, and Marvin Pontiac.
In 1992, musical iconoclast Hal Willner produced the debut CD by Spanish Fly, a cooperative trio with Bernstein, slide guitarist Dave Tronzo and tubaist Marcus Rojas, and they have been collaborating ever since.
During his 10 years as a member of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards he arranged the music for Get Shorty, Clay Pigeons, Fishing With John and many more film, television and commercial projects with Mr. Lurie.
Check out Steven Bernstein’s web site for the full biography
You seem pretty busy. You have a lot of fingers in a lot of pies!
I do. I have been really busy playing with Levon Helm, of The Band fame. I played with Levon about six years ago, and I just love Levon, his was the only non-jazz album I had as a teenager, his “Rock of Ages”, with the horns by Allen Toussaint. We have been working hard and touring and I have to say Levon is getting older, he is 71, so I am making this project my number one priority, it is a chance to play with a legend and it may not go on forever so I am dedicating myself to that for the moment. My own stuff is sort of on hold as I am part of history now working with Levon! It is a huge story over here in the States, the return of Levon Helm. There is a 12 piece band with a 5 piece horn section, and (I hate to brag) but it is the best live show you will see in your life!
So is Sex Mob on the back burner for the moment?
No! Everything is always on the front burner. There are just a lot of burners….Sex Mob, we just played together recently, we hadn’t played together in a while. I want to make a record of Nino Rota’s music. A few Italian musicians have done records of Nino Rota’s music but I want to give his music the Sex Mob treatment so that is the next thing I am working on with Sex Mob. We are still in the creation stage but I hope that in a few months we will be able to record it. We have a European tour happening in November.
Speaking of Europe I saw you recently did some work with Paolo Fresu, the Sardinian trumpet player.
Yes, we have a new project called “Brass Bang” with Gianluca Petrello, the Italian trombone player who always comes to sit in with Sex Mob when we’re in Italy and Paolo Fresu and Marcus Rojas the tuba player from Spanish Fly days. So it is a really special brass band with four band leaders. We did 13 concerts in Italy last summer along with the Orvieto Jazz Festival.
Yes! I am about to release Millennial Territory Orchestra plays Sly. That was originally done as a commission from a festival in New York. I grew up in California and I grew up listening to Sly all my life. He has always been a part of my life. I was even listening to him when I was nine. When I was a teenager I only had jazz records except for the one “’The Band’ record which had a horn section on it and then I got a Jimi Hendrix record. So I thought, well maybe rock is not so bad and then I got a Sly record and I thought WOW! Sly sort of disappeared though, he stopped having hits in about 71 or 72 but I kept listening to him all the time. I hate to use the word genius but his compositions were truly incredible. He has not really been appreciated. He was a brilliant songwriter, arranger, with great harmonies and counter melodies and counter point but whenever people play his music they play his most basic music. It is like somebody saying they like classical music when they have only heard Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. So I took all this great music and arranged it for the Millennial Territory Orchestra. Bernie Worrell was the musical director of Parliament/Funkadelic. I invited him to take part as he is a genius on the organ and he could help me replicate and pay tribute to that sound like what they did in the big bands in the 50s where they had a Hammond organ to accompany them. We have five different singers, Anthony from Anthony and the Johnsons and Martha Wainwright, Dean Bowman, Sandra St. Victor and a young singer called Shilpa Ray. There are 17 musicians in all.
Is there any crossover with Sex Mob or is this a whole new bunch of people?
Some times the Sex Mob guys sub in the MTO but this is a whole different thing from Sex Mob. They are all part of the same circle of musicians but on this record there is no crossover.
I saw you have been working with Roswell Rudd recently too
Roswell is a really good friend and sort of a mentor. We play together, he was on the Sex Mob record Dime Grind Palace and we played on his Trombone Tribe. Three of my biggest heroes were Roswell Rudd, Sam Rivers and Levon Helm and Bernie Worrell too, you have to check him out. You just get one life but to get to make records with your heroes makes it all worthwhile. It is great. I dreamed for something and I got it!
Just to go back in time for a minute, you are from Berkeley California originally right?
I grew up in Berkeley but when High School was over I knew I wanted to go to New York, so I went to Columbia University, but just because it was in New York. So I went to Columbia back in 1979 but I was already playing music and gigging by then so I started playing in New York straight away. I met Wynton Marsalis on my third day in New York. I started discovering the downtown scene in my first summer in New York. In my second summer I stayed in new York to play gigs and met John Zorn and Elliott Sharp and Wayne Horvitz – it was Butch Morris who introduced me to all those guys.
Were you playing the trumpet or slide trumpet then, have you always played the trumpet?
I have always played the trumpet. At school we had a jazz band so I started playing when I was 11 years old. Berkeley was pretty progressive and before Reagan changed the tax system and took all the money out of schools, the schools had money, so one of the programmes they had was a jazz programme for elementary school kids. We were one of the first integrated school systems and one of the first to have a jazz programme.
Back in New York your career got started with Spanish Fly and the Knitting factory, is that right?
There is about ten years of history before that though. I played with a lot of bands but they were all small so I had about ten years of playing in various bands. There was a punk-funk scene, there was the Andy Warhol scene, back in the late 70s. There was a lot going on, the more Pop side of it would be the Talking Heads. There was a very underground scene. A lot was going on down town in the Mudd club and the Danceteria. The music was very New York-centric. Then came Spanish Fly which was the first time I tried to put my own stamp on a band.
Was that the first time you did your own writing and arranging, with Spanish Fly?
I had done a bit before that. It is hard when you are young to organise and arrange your thoughts, you have so much in your mind but I have been doing it for so long it is second nature to me now. The wider your vision, the longer it takes to get into focus. I knew I didn’t want to be Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, I didn’t want to be a funk band or Sun Ra, I wanted to be something different that combined all of these things. I don’t want to call it a brand but I have developed this new type of music which is part jazz, part pop, part free jazz, rhythm and arranging too. I really wanted to create a new genre – I hate to use that word – but something personal.
Have you come up with a name for this yet?
No, If I were smarter maybe!!
I heard you were a big Duke Ellington fan, and always have been.
I used to listen to him every day. He still gives me that feeling that I don’t get from anything else. He is a constant inspiration to me. Life is so busy now though I don’t really have the time to sit down and listen to anybody. But I did realise a few weeks ago that I had 7 CDs in my car and 4 were Duke Ellington CDs! He will always be a cornerstone although you don’t want your influences to be so obvious so people instantly say, oh yeah, that’s so and so….But some people just become part of yourself. I think the idea is to make the music in your own image even though you have influences and you replicate things. It has to be in your own image.
Any idea who your fans are, Count Basie freaks and jazz punks all mixed together?
It is a really wide range because I make so many different types of records. We haven’t talked about my Jewish records…
The Diaspora series?
Yeah. That is a good example, after I did those records I used to get emails saying “My Dad’s a Rabbi and he never likes the music I listen to but now we have something we both like”. The NPR people have been really supportive of me. My fans are just smart people, what I mean is music fans as opposed to just jazz fans.
How did the Diaspora project take off, did John Zorn just give you a call?
He did give me a call and he said he had this new label and that he wanted people to do Jewish records. At that point I had never made a record under my own name and I told him that I didn’t really want my first record to be specifically Jewish music. I didn’t want people identifying me as a Jewish musician. He told me to think about so I did and then I had an idea so I called him and he said that he didn’t like the idea and that happened a couple of times over a few months until I thought screw it, you don’t like my ideas anyway! But then I was in this period when I was studying New Orleans music really hard, all about marching bands and I saw that a lot of the guys that played with Little Richard went home to play in traditional Dixieland jazz bands. In that period I was preparing some music for a Jewish wedding and I was trying to funkify it and arrange it a bit and I realised that this sounded just like the New Orleans music I had been listening to!” So I called John and he liked the idea. So we went with that and that’s how it got started.
What about movie soundtracks? Did you work with Robert Altman?
My first movie was with Robert Altman, that was my entree into making movies.
Was that Kansas City?
Yes, Kansas City. Then three months later I get a call from John Lurie who says he is working on a movie and he asks me if I want to help him on the score. It was “Get Shorty” which was a great soundtrack. So the first movies I do are a Robert Altman movie and then a movie with a hit soundtrack! That’s how I started my career, where was I supposed to go from there? I would love to work with a director who just likes my music so that I can do the soundtrack on my own terms. I don’t want to just sit in front of a computer like an automaton pushing out music for movies, that’s not what I do.
You seem to have studiously avoided working for record companies!
Yeah, I’ve worked for just about every record company in the world as a sideman. The real problem is that people had a hard time identifying what I did, I wasn’t jazz, I wasn’t a rock musician, so they could never find a niche for me. The beauty of it is that as I have been doing my own music and making CDs on my own, now with all the record companies gone, I am ahead of the game as an independent. My real problem is that I am so busy, I raise a family, I work every day, I just don’t have the time to do all the self marketing on Twitter, Facebook and make my own videos.
You travel a lot too though
I do. In the last three months I have been in Orvieto in Italy, then I was in Tulsa Oklahoma, then I went to Ethiopia, then to Tel Aviv and then to Canada and then back to Italy. That’s the sort of life I have.
Where do you think the music industry is going with plummeting CD sales. Is this the end?
The game is not over, I have more work than I can handle right now. I never sold huge amounts of CDs but I have probably sold a lot for an independent jazz musician. I sold more CDs when nobody knew who I was than I sell now. Ten years ago or more people bought CDs, now they just don’t. The real reason to cut a CD is that it represents your body of work. My goal is to make music that is more than just one dimensional. People need music and if you make music that people can relate to you will be OK. People need music to stay alive. As far as the industry is concerned it is in transition and nobody knows how this is going to end. You have to remember that recorded music has been through some serious changes from 78s to 45s, to full length records, but they only got started in the 50s. People were just making singles before that.
Are you a political animal, you interested in politics at all?
Oh yes! The Obama presidency has been a lot more tumultuous than any of us thought it would be. Certain black friends of mine were sure he would be dead by now – that he was going to be assassinated. This tea party thing is all about fear. You have this whole class of white Americans now, they are not college educated and they have seen their jobs disappear, and they see a black man in the White House which they really don’t understand. They keep saying that they don’t want health care, and they don’t want unions to take away their freedom, but they don’t realise that the reason they are not making any money is that the Republicans destroyed the Unions and have been lowering their wages over the last 30 years.
So what does 2011 look like for you?
The biggest thing is to get the Sly record out, maybe in the fall. I really hope that CD makes a mark as it is really a summation of everything I have done. I also have a project going with Billy Martin called Wicked Knee. But above all, I have to keep practicing. I have to play the trumpet, if I weren’t talking to you now I’d be practicing!!