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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.

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