June 2008

Steven Bernstein: The Mix-Up

No one really knows who I am, but, man, I’m everywhere,” says trumpeter Steven Bernstein.

The brass man, often seen blowing a slide trumpet in bands like Sex Mob or the Millennial Territory Orchestra, isn’t bragging, nor is he bemoaning a public that doesn’t recognize him. Bernstein actually sounds surprised, due in part to a recent experience at a shopping mall. As he walked through a store with his teenage daughter, the piped-in music caught his ear. It turned out to be the title track to Rufus Wainwright’s Release the Stars album. “I just stopped and said, ‘This is an arrangement I wrote for Rufus Wainwright, and it’s being piped into Bed Bath and Beyond,’” he says with amusement. “And [my daughter] says, ‘OK, Dad, come on.’”

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Greg Aiello

Steven Bernstein

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise Bernstein who, in addition to a sizable discography of his own, has written arrangements for the film Get Shorty (which was nominated for an Academy Award), the kids’ television show The Backyardigans and radio commercials. Nevertheless, he remembers that it wasn’t always this way. “I think, Man, you’re entering the public consciousness and you started doing this stuff way underground. I mean, way underground,” he says. “Now it’s slowly slipping into the regular world and you don’t know it. It’s stealth.”

Diaspora Suite, Bernstein’s most recent record, marks his fourth Diaspora project for the Tzadik label. It might not be heard in food courts any time soon, but it shows the scope of Bernstein’s vocabulary, which arguably keeps him working in so many settings. Previous installments—Diaspora Soul, Diaspora Blues and Diaspora Hollywood—came under Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Music series, taking traditional Jewish music and infusing it with rhythm and blues or cool jazz backgrounds or using the Sam Rivers Trio to provide its spin on it.

The first in the series consisting solely of original compositions, Diaspora Suite contains 12 adventurous tracks inspired by music Bernstein heard growing up in the late ’60s/early ’70s Bay Area. Saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and trombonist Jeff Cressman, whom Bernstein has known since sixth grade, bring the music to life, along with clarinetist Ben Goldberg, guitarists Nels Cline, John Schott and Will Bernard, bassist Devon Hoff and drummers Scott Amendola and Josh Jones.

John Zorn, who runs Tzadik, had encouraged Bernstein to make a fourth album for the series, but Bernstein never gave it much thought until he was performing at a memorial for filmmaker Robert Altman last year. (Bernstein scored the director’s film Kansas City and toured with the band that recorded the soundtrack.) During the service, cartoonist Garry Trudeau talked about Altman’s opinion of scripts and why he told his actors not to follow them. The script exists “so the actors know who they are,” Bernstein recalls. “So the light bulb went off. I’d been doing all these records where I’m an arranger, and I tell everybody their role all the way through: Baby Loves Jazz, [a] Leonard Cohen [tribute], MTO. I wanted to do something where I don’t know what the arrangement is, where we just go in there and we trust our instincts.”

Bernstein wrote the framework for the compositions and booked studio time to coincide with his appearance at the Bay Area Jewish Music Festival last fall. With only one rehearsal under their belt, without Cline and Goldberg, the group knocked out a total of 15 compositions in one six-hour session.

The music taps into the “psychedelic horns, rock guitar, rhythm and melody” Bernstein recalls from his youth, but the overall results sound equally contemporary. Over a two-chord vamp on “Simeon (Yis May Chu),” Apfelbaum quotes a reasonable facsimile of Wayne Shorter’s “Ju Ju” before the theme comes in, with the unusual horn section playing something like a slow, Jewish version of “Caravan.” Cline whips out his own version of psychedelics on “Judah” while both “Gad” and the closing “Benjamin” are, Bernstein says, “almost like Swedish death metal.”

Bernard was the only member of the band not present at the recordings. His “electric guitar sweeteners,” as the credits say, were overdubbed later when Bernstein heard more ideas in his head. Like the dual drummer set up, the extra set of strings complements the music rather than clogging it up. And the trumpeter likes the triple threat. “Three guitars are like a big band,” he says. “Two guitars are just two guitars, but with three guitars you can actually sound like Count Basie.”

Like his work in Levon Helm’s band, another regular gig he’s held for over three years, Bernstein doesn’t like to associate any of his projects with one particular style of music. “Someone once said, ‘Isn’t Sex Mob your funk band?’ I said no,” he states. “None of them are funk bands or jazz bands, they’re just my bands. Sure, Diaspora’s my Jewish band, but if you want to call Sam Rivers a Jewish band, sure, whatever.”

“A musician’s job is to put the music in their own image,” he continues, referring to Diaspora Suite. “That’s who I am because I grew up that way. It goes back to Berkeley where everybody was mixing everything up. It seems unnatural to me when people aren’t mixing things up.”

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