Steven Bernstein is deeply involved in New York’s downtown jazz scene. His other combo, Sex Mob, is better known, but this Millennial Territory Orchestra is getting some national media attention as well, because nobody else is doing anything like it.
Territory bands is one name for the plethora of local and regional jazz orchestras that sprang up, particularly in the Midwest, in the 1930s and early ’40s. When folks were dancing in the clubs on Saturday nights in small cities across the country, it was often to these regional combos. They may have had a more quirky lineup than the reeds-brass-piano-drums bands that became the standard, including elements like guitars and violins that were more common in Texas-style swing bands. They recorded on small labels if at all, and pretty much died out after the war, with the advent of be-bop, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, and of course national radio and television.
Bernstein has decided to resurrect the form, with this mid-sized combo that includes clarinet, saxophones, trombone, guitar, banjo, violin and Bernstein on trumpet and the extremely rare slide trumpet, also known as a soprano trombone.
Well. All that makes it sound very academic. But MTO’s music is anything but. It’s a lot of fun.
The highlights to me are the pop covers. One is the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.” (It’s probably no coincidence that Sex Mob contributed to the two-night “American Beauty Project” in downtown New York in January 2007 in tribute to the music of the Dead.) This whimsical but not comical arrangement captures the Americana heart of this essential Dead song, beginning with a two-minute languid introduction to the melody by the violin, backed by the sax section and trombone. Then the band kicks in, particularly the drums and Bernstein on trumpet, and it really swings; on the final run through the melody, the clarinet and saxes carry it while the trombone vamps woozily.
Another impressive cover is The Beatles’ “Cry Baby, Cry.” This one’s tough to do as an instrumental because the melody line is pretty flat. The tenor sax handles the intro duties here, and then the bari sax takes the melody, which immediately grabs your attention because it’s not usually a lead instrument; and Erik Lawrence rides a fine line between sticking too close to the monotonous melody and embellishing it too much. by the fourth run-through, he’s pretty much in Coltrane-esque freakout mode.
Now, Prince covers are generally lost on me, because I was never a Prince fan. In fact I probably only heard a Prince song on the radio once or twice back in the day when he was first called Prince. I liked the Hindu Love Gods’ take on “Raspberry Beret,” and am quite taken with Richard Thompson’s cover of “Kiss” (which my daughter the Prince fan tells me she likes better than the original), but I don’t have the original to compare them with. Similarly, MTO’s “Darling Nikki” is great fun, but probably not as much to me as it is to the aficionado. At first, the melody is minimally sketched out on trombone, bari sax and plucked violin; it builds and builds, adding instruments and ratcheting up the tension, until about the midpoint, the slide trumpet jumps in with the melody and it changes tempo slightly to a seething mid-tempo rocker. The muted wah-wah slide trumpet adds a bit more humor to an already droll arrangement, and it builds to a screaming finale with the whole band in on the act.
There are a couple of vocal numbers as well. Guest guitarist-singer Doug Wamble takes a bluesy, gutsy gospel turn on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” (to which he adds some hot slide guitar licks too) and Matt Munisteri is the essence of cool with his tenor vocals on the very Glen Miller-ish chart of “Pennies From Heaven.” Well, Miller didn’t have a solo violin in his orchestra, but still.
There are elements of hot jazz, klezmer and even classical music (especially in the violin cadenza at the end) on the opening track, “The Boy In The Boat,” some Dixieland and bop both in “Happy Hour Blues,” and a lot of swing in the trombone-driven “Toby.”
If you’re looking for some jazz that’s approachable and even fun, consider Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra. And if you get the chance to see them, do so; they are by all counts a hot ticket.