Steven Bernstein with his slide trumpet (from his SFJAZZ event page)
Those who read this week’s Bleeding Edge article know that one of the major events of the week was trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s four-night residency at the SFJAZZ Center, which involved three different programs presented in the Joe Henderson Lab. Bernstein is engagingly brash in his arrangements, which cover music from some of the earliest days to jazz all the way up to the rich diversity of pop during the last quarter of the twentieth century, as well as his original compositions and his capacity for improvisation. For the first two nights of his residency, he led his Sexmob quartet, whose other members are Briggan Krauss on saxophones, Tony Scherr on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. The first night took on music that Nino Rota composed for films made by Federico Fellini, while the second night shifted to the extensive repertoire of Duke Ellington.
Last night was the first of two nights at which Bernstein scaled up to the repertoire of his Millennial Territory Orchestra (MTO). MTO was formed in New York, where Bernstein is based; but last night he presented a “Western edition” (my shameless appropriation of someone else’s pun) featuring Bay Area jazz luminaries. The members of Sexmob formed the core; and they were joined by Jenny Scheinman on violin, Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Howard Wiley on tenor saxophone, Jeff Cressman on trombone, and George Samuels on guitar. The core of the repertoire draws on music from the pre-swing era territory bands that crisscrossed the country in the Twenties and Thirties; but the performances are grounded solidly on the rich diversity afforded by our “new millennium.” Thus, while last night’s selections were grounded heavily in the book of Count Basie, at least one of the Basie selections was heavily colored (in purple?) by the influence of Prince. (Was this a deliberately prankish “Prince meets Count” move by Bernstein?)
Nevertheless, over the course of last night’s first one-hour set, MTO covered far more than Basie originals. The group opened with W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” with a nod to Basie’s arrangement. Bernstein explained that, shortly after the original MTO was formed, the group played the piece at the funeral of Lester Bowie (co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago), who had died on November 8, 1999. After that Bernstein decided that every subsequent gig would begin with “St. Louis Blues,” honoring the recent past of Bowie with the more distant legacy of Basie and Handy. That elegiac synthesis of recent and distant past also surfaced in “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” which Charles Mingus composed a few month’s after Ellington’s death. (Mingus had played bass for Ellington early in his own career and was subsequently fired by him.) Bernstein turned to Mingus because he felt the music the group was playing needed more harmony, and Mingus brought to jazz some of the richest harmonic textures to be encountered this side of Richard Wagner.
Another past-in-the-present offering was the Bessie Smith song “Put It Right Here (or Keep it Out There)” (performed without a vocalist to keep the evening G-rated). Smith had sung in the film St. Louis Blues, an early two-reeler based on the Handy song (which Smith sang). Of a similar vintage was the account of “The Boy in the Boat,” originally given an overtly effeminate delivery by George Hannah accompanied at the piano by Meade Lux Lewis. Bernstein referred to the song as X-rated without going into details. (It was about sex between women; and, again, the music was performed without the words.)
As diverse as the repertoire were the styles of performance contributed by the individual MTO West players. Bernstein is a generous leader, making sure that each of the band members had more than ample time to exercise his/her own interpretations of the tunes. Those receiving particular attention were Wiley for his tenor work and Scheinman on violin. Samuels was a newcomer to the group, put he had a chance to display some engagingly intimate duo work playing against Scheinman’s pizzicato.
Bernstein himself has established his talent on the slide trumpet, an instrument about as obscure as the “Boy in the Boat” song. By using a slide, rather than valves, Bernstein could color his melodic lines with a portamento delivery that recalled vocal styles of a century ago (Smith being a good example). Given the size of the instrument, pitch control is far more difficult than on a slide trombone; but there was never any uncertainty in Bernstein’s melodic lines. Over the course of his set, he also played both a standard valve trumpet and flugelhorn.
Nuts-and-bolts-aside, though, what made last night memorable was the consistently vigorous energy coming from the group as a whole. Bernstein’s attention to harmony meant that all accompanying textures were solidly well-blended; and this was most evident in the subtle shadings that emerged when Goldberg, Wiley, and Krauss played as a group. MTO West was probably the largest ensemble I had encountered in the Henderson Lab, but they never sounded too loud. Rather, they delivered vigorous accounts of every selection with each player consistently given his/her all while Bernstein kept control over who was doing what and for how long. The group will return to Henderson tonight for sets at 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. As of this writing, the later set is almost sold out; but tickets are still available for both.