Music

Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: We are MTO

The brash, fun MTO's sophomore set: plenty swing, some funk, some vocals, all a mite too sterile this time out.


Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra

We Are MTO

Contributors: Steven Bernstein, Clark Gayton, Ben Allison, Doug Wamble, Ben Perowsky, Doug Wieselman, Peter Apfelbaum
Label: MOWO!
US Release Date: 2008-10-21
UK Release Date: 2008-10-21
Amazon
Amazon
iTunes

More and more, it seems like jazz could not really go on without Steven Bernstein. You never know where he is going to pop up -- as a guest with saxophonist Paul Shapiro's Ribs & Brisket Review, as the arranging teacher for Fight the Big Bull auteur Matthew White, blowing on a Bobby Previte date, leading a horn section outside of jazz for Levon Helm, or leading one of his own diverse sessions. If he's not a mainstream figure like Wynton Marsalis, then he's become a kind of alt-Wynton: presiding over various Brooklyn/downtown concerns, while also crossing over to funk and rock areas.

Bernstein's most personal music, the music that he releases under his own name, also has a huge range. Earlier in 2008, his Diaspora Suite encompassed his roots as a Bay Area jazz musician, world music strains, and his interest in early fusion-era Miles Davis. His Millennial Territory Orchestra is a working band that also devours a swath of styles: of course, the "territory band" swing usually associated with Count Basie, but also earthy funk, contemporary popular tunes, and blues in various forms. The MTO, as Bernstein calls it, is not afraid to be funny, to have fun, or to play with emotion—and he says it "might be the fullest expression of my musical personality."

The MTO's second collection, We Are MTO, is not the full-on revelation of its first. Maybe the band's shtick—a proto-swing band as comfortable with Prince as with Bennie Moten!—is one that can only knock you off your chair the first time? MTO, Volume 1 packed mad punch, suggesting that the loosely assembled joy of modern "downtown" jazz both (a) had obvious roots in pre-bebop bands largely forgotten today, and (b) could play in the realm of pop grooves with abandon. We Are MTO goes down the same road, and it's still fun, but now it's your second kiss with a nutty, pretty girl, not your first.

The players here are a select group: Charlie Burnham, featured often on soulful violin; Clark Gayton, with a fat but fleet trombone sound; Doug Wieselman, Peter Apfelbaum, and Erik Lawrence on reeds; Matt Munisteri and/or Doug Wamble on guitar and vocals; Ben Allison, lending his handsome and funky bass; and Ben Perowsky on drums. As a nine-piece, the MTO has played scores of loosely conducted gigs, developing their little-big-band arrangements on the fly. If you've seen the gang in concert (most likely at New York's Jazz Standard or at the sadly departed Tonic), then you know it's a madhouse of fun, with Bernstein deploying soloists and background figures like a kid digging into his Play-Doh.

We Are MTO, of course, can't give you that visceral midnight experience. Indeed, on disc the arrangements sound clean and clear—worked out to the note and delivered with, well, maybe not polish but certainly a semblance of gleam. Not that the band doesn't play free and blowzy at times—just dig the end of "Paducah", with the cats playing expressively on those long Don Redman chords and Perowsky bashing away like he was in a 1970s loft—but maybe they washed up a little too much before hitting the recording studio this time.

Still, plenty of MTO magic survives. Most of the tunes are loose swingers or older blues tunes from the territory days, with Bernstein arrangements that don't shy away from modern harmony. "Dickie's Dream", for example, is a zipping Count Basie staple that features both Munisteri and Wamble on tightly strummed guitars. The opening lets Perowsky bash away some, however, and then Bernstein delivers dissonance on the second statement of the basic theme. Solos by Burnham and Apfelbaum stray well beyond any Basie harmonic comfort zone, leading to a pins-and-needles exchange of dueling guitar lines. Magic on a zip-line.

There is a lot of this good ol' stuff here. "In a Corner" is a Cecil Scott tune that plays it fairly straight, recreating the old sounds—including some broadly expressive reed playing—to an enjoyable T. "It's Tight, Jim" is of even greater vintage, and it recreates New Orleans-styled breaks and loose, contrapuntal playing. "Viper Song" is a Fats Waller classic, of course, about a "giant reefer about five feet long". The two guitarists double on vocals here in comic style, curling their personalities into the music without too much affectation. The band is glorious behind them—in no hurry and perfectly balanced, elastic as necessary to allow the swing to drench every note.

All this vintage stuff, however, leaves little room for newer sounds to emerge. "We Are MTO", the Bernstein-penned opener, is impossible not to dig: a straight-up funk groove that begins with a heavy dose of Burnham's raw violin, followed by a set of soprano horn voicings that curl your toes. No long solos, but tons of goose-loose enjoyment. "It Makes No Difference Now"—familiar to Ray Charles fans, among others—is an old tune, but it's so drenched in blues and familiar R&B feeling that it sheds the years easily. The horns play like a wonderful mess in the first break, after which Munisteri takes a chorus backed only by his own guitar. It's a truly winning performance and arrangement.

The only overtly genre-bending exercise here—comparable to the first disc's head-spinning treatment of "Darling Nikki"—is the band's slow-build arrangement of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love". We should all be quick to discourage jazz musicians from turning to the Lennon-McCartney catalog, but this is an exception. Before the groove begins, Allison, Burnham, and Perowsky play a skittering trio that obliquely references "Home on the Range". The horns then play the familiar introduction before giving way to Wieselman's statement of the verse melody on clarinet. The chorus is voiced for all the harmonized horns, and the out-chorus amps (and speeds) up like a Mingus band would have, with the guitar playing blues. Amazingly, it feels right and natural. Even without the lyrics, it can warm your heart.

This feeling of warmth is that Bernstein's fine band is all about in its own raucous/retro way. This second outing for the MTO is slightly imbalanced toward the "retro" perhaps, but Bernstein's band is too accomplished and fun to quibble with. We Are MTO can put a smile on your face.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.