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Steven Bernstein: Still Downtown & Still Cooking

Russ Davis of MOJA Radio catches up with trumpeter and bandleader about his latest project

Steven Bernstein
Ben Allison and Russ Davis

I was not lucky enough to be based in New York City in the heyday of the famed “Downtown Scene.” Somehow, though, I feel connected whenever I hear music made by the great trumpeter, composer, leader and musical force that is Steven Bernstein. That connection was exactly what I sought out, along with the desire for a funky, good time, when I made my way to the 92nd Street Y-Tribeca on Friday, October 14th to hear Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra perform music from his latest project MTO Plays SLY, a jazzy celebration of the music of pop sensation Sylvester Stewart and his band Sly & The Family Stone. I came early for sound-check so that I could catch Steven for a quick interview for my Voice of America and MOJA Radio projects. I found the band ready to roll and Steven as full of energy and creativity as I’ve ever known him to be.

Firstly, about the “Downtown Scene,” I mentioned to Steven that he was a big part of it in modern days and since we were literally downtown inside the confines of the 92nd Street Y-Tribeca, he was still making musical history in this famous part of the musical world. He sarcastically mentioned that there wasn’t much left of it and that he’d had a celebratory concert to mark his 50th birthday recently (October 8th) not in a famous, funky downtown club but instead in a venue in Hudson, New York, almost 2 hours north of the city in Columbia County. He’s right, of course, as the downtown venues where alternative, avante garde jazz a la John Zorn or Steve Coleman & the M-Base Collective can be seen and heard are not as plentiful as before. Legendary places like Tonic, Sweet Basil and The Knitting Factory, where Steven Bernstein’s Sex Mob were born and raised, are no more. Granted there are others like Smalls, Le Poisson Rouge and The Stone that have hung in there but many clubs are not jazz-only and the most famous ones are pretty high-ticket spots where the old days of nursing a beer for the night and hearing a couple of sets is a thing of the past. Still, if you want to find the downtown scene today you can certainly seek it out and enjoy yourself. I was lucky to find a bit on this rainy Friday in Tribeca with Steven and the crew.

I asked Steven the simple question “Why Sly?” to which he answered it was music that he’d heard casually at a young age and had returned to in earnest in later years to find all the things he loves and appreciates about great music and visionary musicians. Sly was “multi-culti” before anyone even knew the phrase, Steven said. He went on to talk about how Sly broke the rules and then made his own, much like Mr. Bernstein himself has over the years, making music that was pop and accessible but a blending of all aspects of American music: blues, gospel, rock, jazz, country and soul. Sly and Steven Bernstein are each one a master of truly American music. Steven was born in Washington, DC but came of age in Berkley, California and if you know his music and think about it you hear a lot of that “Back Bay Funk,” perfect for a salute to Sly & The Family Stone. Combine that element with the ever present Duke Ellington influence in Bernstein’s music and you have that unique combination that just can’t be found anywhere else.

The original impetus for this project came when the organizers of the annual New York concert series The River To River Festival were presenting a series of shows to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock and invited Steven to contribute. His first thought was a tribute to Sly and after the performance, which was a rousing success, a devoted fan of Steven’s contacted him with an offer to bankroll his next project. Striking while the iron was hot, Bernstein took 11 musicians, including his usual cast of talented characters, a pack of great vocalists and two legends of soul, organist Bernie Worrell and Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and fellow “Downtown Scene” legend Bill Laswell into a Brooklyn recording studio for two days and MTO Plays SLY was born. The songs are true to Sly’s vision though not their original form, as one would expect from a master interpreter of other people’s music as Steven Bernstein has become, most famously with Sex Mob. A great example is the classic “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” which becomes “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa.” Each song is a unique work of tribute unto itself and the spirit of the entire project is pure fun and high art.

The performance at 92nd Street Y-Tribeca was a funky celebration of the highest order. With Steven directing every move, he mentioned to me later that being the leader if his natural role but he sure enjoys just being a sideman from time to time as he has been for over 7 years with Levon Helms’s Horns, he put this unique assemblage of players and vocalists through an uplifting set of non-stop party-art music. The horns were as superb as they always have been with Steven at the helm. Bernie Worrell was regal in his presence bringing a palpable connection to the original source to the stage. The combination of electric guitar and occasional banjo mixed with another fabulous stringed instrument, a soaring electric violin with an astoundingly human quality, separated this from anything Sly might have produced himself but clearly put the Steven Bernstein stamp all over the night’s music. Another unique element was the fact that young bass stalwart Ben Allison was thumping not on an electric bass a la Larry Graham, but instead on his usual double bass and not a funky beat was missed.

I had the chance to catch up with Ben Allison later for some quick conversation and he talked of how thrilled he was to be part of this fun project, just another in a long line of great gigs he’s been part of since arriving in New York over 20 years ago. He was a charter member of Millennial Territory Orchestra and possesses as adventurous and free a musical spirit as Steven Bernstein does. Like Steven, he’s released his own albums that have included his unique take on pop classics as well as his own compositions, as he has on his recent releases Think Free and Action-Refraction. As the founder of The Jazz Composers Collective, the non-profit organization that supports and encourages creative projects in the New York music community, Ben has helped keep that free spirit of “The Downtown Scene” alive in his own way. He told me about how he is looking forward to his first performance of his own music with his own band at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on February 3rd, 2012. “The Downtown Scene” moves uptown on this evening

The “Downtown Scene” may have moved uptown and up the Hudson River from time to time and some of the old haunts are now expensive condo buildings or chic clothing stores, but when Steven Bernstein is on stage leading a band, any band, it’s still alive and well and still cooking as it was on this night in Tribeca!

Originally Published