The phenomenon of music created during the time of the coronavirus, already covered in depth by this magazine and countless other outlets, won’t be fully understood for years: How, critics will undoubtedly ponder, was the era’s art affected by the circumstances in which it was made? What Comes Next—note the optimistic lack of a question mark in the title—features guitarist Peter Bernstein and three other musicians playing nine pieces live in a New York studio while observing social distancing protocols. On the surface, that may not seem so unusual; musicians are likely to remain six feet apart while playing together in normal times. But was the virus’ oversized presence in the outside world influencing them while they did so?
These questions are addressed in Steve Futterman’s liner notes, in which Bernstein is quoted as saying he felt emotionally impacted by the very notion of picking up his instrument last June and going out to play again with others. Happily, though, there doesn’t appear to have been any noticeable difference within the music itself. On six Bernstein originals and three covers, the quartet—including pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Joe Farnsworth—is fully present; there is no sense of tension or caution in their interactions, no hovering hesitance. The musicians dig in and give their all.
“Harbor No Illusions,” one of the Bernstein compositions, is a highlight, the guitarist and pianist playing a particularly intense game of tag while Farnsworth and Washington rage alongside them. The title track swings at a sturdy pace, while the easygoing “Empty Streets” reflects the eerie yet strangely calming feeling of living in a usually teeming city now so subdued. Among the covers, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” is a gem, full of heart and life. For the music, on this day at least, it was business as usual.