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.