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May 2008

Steven Bernstein
Diaspora Suite
Tzadik

Steven Bernstein’s fourth entry in his ongoing Diaspora series (previously: Soul, Blues, Hollywood) is the most freewheeling thus far, a laissez-faire affair that shifts the recording location, and the sensibility, to the anything-goes/toss-it-all-into-the-mix Bay Area. There, Bernstein, a trumpeter so constantly in-demand the word “prolific” would only make him sound lazy, assembled a nonet’s worth of old friends and kindred souls and let them have at it. The results vary in intensity, freedom and level of spontaneous combustion, but the jams are never dull.

Like the previous volumes, Diaspora Suite sets off to sea from a Jewish port. But it quickly assimilates—nearly a decade and countless touring miles into the franchise, the Diaspora model has evolved. By titling each track after one of the Biblical Jacob’s sons, the namesakes of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, Bernstein gives notice from the onset that, like those brothers, his crew’s mission is to spread forth and occupy vast territory. And where better than San Francisco (although it was actually recorded in Oakland), with its rich history of boundary-busting jazz, rock, funk, blues and Latin music—all of it fair game here—to do so?

The tracks that present the most disparate sonic clashes are the most successful. In the album-closing “Benjamin,” wildly flailing drums and bomb-bursting bass welcome shards of ominous metalloid guitar, getting you to wonder whether maybe these guys should’ve called themselves Black Shabbos. The fantastically colored, multilayered “Naphtali” is a barrage of tail-chasing standard horns and repetitive eighth-note guitar running amok atop a runaway train of pumping bass and squawking contra alto clarinet. And on “Simeon,” that guitar grows a nasty wah-wah, which meets up with uppity bass, funked-up drums and a greasy tenor saxophone solo that leaves no doubt that this is definitely not your Bubba’s Jewish music.

Originally published in May 2008
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