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Image from the cover of Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, MTO Plays Sly

The Brad Shepik Quartet & Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra

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Brad Shepik Quartet, Across the Way

Brad Shepik is a versatile guitarist from the Pacific Northwest who arrived in New York to make a creative impact with Dave Douglas, Jim Black and others in a generation of jazz players who easily ignored divisions—playing jazz based on Eastern European melodies, for example, and certainly not giving a hoot about notions of “in” and “out” playing. His last several solo releases (2006’s Places You’ll Go and 2009’s Human Activity Suite) have seemed increasingly charming and easy on the ears—in the best way.

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Brad Shepik Quartet

Across the Way

(Songlines; US: 8 Feb 2011; UK: 3 Feb 2011)

Last year’s Across the Way is as sunny and melodic as jazz can be. Featuring a quartet with Mark Guiliana on drums, Jorge Roeder’s bass and—critically—the vibes of Tom Beckham, this recording seems to come from the sunshine-splashed tradition of Gary Burton or the 1970’s records from pianist Keith Jarrett. Each song features a strong and singing melody spun around cunning but open harmonies that paint a picture of open space and horizons being reached for.

So how could I miss an album this blazing and fun the first time around? My only excuse is that on first listen, I found it too easy to listen to. The combination of electric guitar and vibes, in a year when Burton himself released a fine disc in that high Burton-ian tradition, may have seemed too derivative on first listen. On a tune like “Xylo”, the tricky, jabbing melody is nearly as catchy as a pop song. Yet hearing it again, the playing itself is a huge standout, with Shepik infusing his lines with melting blues licks and witty post-bop pick-melting. “Garden” sounds enough like a stately Jarrett melody—angular while expressive—but is distinguished by focused group playing.

Many other tunes are fully Shepik’s own. “Marburg” is build around a lovely pair of weaving lines in contrary motion between guitar and vibes; “German Taco” plays on a subtle Latin groove; “Pfaffenhoffen” is a ballad that seems to break all the rules of standard harmonic movement with seeming odd; and “Train Home” is a shimmering slice of atmosphere set over a throbbing bass ostinato. The program as a whole stands up to listen after listen. Even in a year rich with great albums featuring the vibraphone, Across the Way turns out to be one of the very best.

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Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra

MTO Plays Sly

(The Royal Potato Family; US: 27 Sep 2011; UK: 27 Sep 2011)

Steven Bernstein, MTO Plays Sly

Finally there is possibly the most odd and most compelling “jazz” record of the year, inevitably from Steven Bernstein and his Millennial Territory Orchestra. The “MTO” is just such a wonderful band, a little big band of nine pieces—and what a line-up this time around: Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Charlie Burnham on violin, Ben Allison on bass and Ben Perowsky’s drums, not to mention three reed players and the leader on trumpet.  MTO plays jazz from the ‘30s with zest and integrity, but it also covers tunes by Prince and—here—by the great Sly Stone, guest artists in tow.

But this is the farthest thing from a jazz band covering pop tunes. It’s just weirder and better than that in every respect. Bernstein has arranged ten classic Sly and the Family Stone tracks, enlisting the organ work of P-Funk master Bernie Worrell and guitarist Vernon Reid, plus five distinctive singers. There are healthy doses of MTO’s funky brass band meets Ellington vibe, but there is also a rich vein of early ‘70s funk, with Reid and Worrell (and a bit of Bill Laswell on electric bass) keeping things earthy in a different sense.

While you never lose track of these arrangements being built around a jazz band (check out the start of “M’Lady”, which has a wailing clarinet motif that recurs once the arrangement really gets going in several places), this is not a record full of saxophone solos. Indeed, there are relatively few “solo improvisations” of any kind here, as the tunes are dominated by vocal performances like the originals.

But still, the personality of Bernstein’s band comes through on every track. The slightest effort in listening to these arrangements reveals Burnham’s fiddle popping through the cracks, Doug Weiselman’s clarinet sounding like a synthesizer or a wah-wah guitar.  The band growls when it’s right but doesn’t get in the way of the idiosyncratic singers who Bernstein (with help from the great Hal Wilner) chose: Martha Wainwright on a slippery cover of Sly’s own cover of “Que Sera Sera”; soul belter Sandra St. Victor; Antony Hagerty remaking “Family Affair”; Shilpa Ray being, er, sly on “Everyday People”; and jazz chameleon Dean Bowman too. You’ll recognize every tune, but they come at you, happily, from left field.

There are also a few original tracks here that find Bernstein putting some crazy banjo under a funk groove on “Sly Notions”, a brief workout for Worrell’s organ, and a Bill Laswell remix. But mainly this is a long-overdue rethinking of one of the great American musical originals. And it serves to remind us that Bernstein deserves to be thought of the same way.

Oh, and why did I forget about this disc when drawing up my “best of” list? Because it was in my car, jammed in the CD player from frequent spinnings. I liked it so much I just didn’t want it to stop.

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.

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