Jazz needs Steven Bernstein. Steven Bernstein, perhaps, does not need jazz.
Bernstein is a classic musical polymath, a trumpeter, yes, but also a composer and arranger and general man about musical town — a musician as comfortable on a rock or hip-hop gig as he is playing Duke Ellington. In an era of disintegrating “major label” support for jazz, the art form increasingly belongs to artists who can do it all. Looking to the last few years, Steve Bernstein increasingly seems like the ultimate Jazz Role Model, a man making consistently brilliant music on his own terms that cannot be categorized and will not be contained.
Diaspora Suite is a major achievement. It is the culmination of a string of recent recordings of varied provenance as well as the culmination of the decade-long “Diaspora” project. In 2006 alone, Bernstein released three brilliant discs: Millennial Territory Orchestra, Volume One, in which his loose-as-a-goose nonet fused ’30s territory band spunk with contemporary funk and fun; Sexotica, a mad update of the Martin Denny’s “Exotica” style through Bernstein’s band Sex Mob in combination with downtown production team Good and Evil; and Baby Loves Jazz, the hippest attempt ever to jazz up childhood — and guested on great work from folks as diverse as Trey Anastasio, Bobby Previte, and Levon Helm. Diaspora Suite is more ambitious and more accomplished that any of those discs.
Suite is also the finest of the four discs in the Diaspora series. Beginning in 1999 with Diaspora Soul, Bernstein has conceived a string of different settings for cantorial melodies or Jewish folk tunes. That first album was an improbable stroke, placing Jewish melodies in an Afro-Cuban context that also incorporated a healthy dose of N’awlins organ groove — as if Doctor John and Machito were stuck together at an all-night Bar Mitzvah with an open bar. Next up, in 2002, was Diaspora Blues, on which Bernstein arranged tunes for himself and the remarkable Sam Rivers Trio, giving the cantorial melodies a setting doused in the free jazz tradition of the Ornette Coleman quartet and the expressive passion of a great saxophonist in that tradition, Rivers. Diaspora Hollywood (2004) is bathed in cool, West Coast jazz shimmer, using vibes and low woodwinds and the hip arranging style that is part of Bernstein’s geographic heritage (he grew up in Berkley, CA). Diaspora Suite is more omnivorous than the earlier records, seeming to include a wide array of influences in a string of original compositions that are imbued with klezmer spirit.
In the liner notes, Bernstein writes that the music here is “a tribute to the sounds I grew up with in the Bay Area… drums, percussion, horns guitars…”. Those instruments happen to be manned by players from the area — guys that Bernstein grew up with and other major progressive jazz players associated with California: Peter Apfelbaum on reeds, Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Jeff Cressman’s trombone, Nels Cline on guitar, Devin Hoff on electric bass, and Scott Amendola on drums, among a few others. The sound is drenched in rock and soul grooves, with ostinato funk lines giving rise to restless trumpet flurries (“Zebulon” among others) as if late-’60s Miles Davis had taken a detour through a synagogue.
But this no simple affair, not a Jewish Bitches Brew exactly. While Diaspora Suite is indeed funky and loose, it is equally built around considered arrangements and composition. Thus, while the opener, “Reuben” (each song is named for one of Jacob’s Old Testament sons) begins with a hip, tribal drum groove and a muttering trumpet solo in counterpoint to screeching guitar, the reeds are soon in with a minor counter-line, the trombone picks up a kind of bassline, then Goldberg’s clarinet soars in a klezmer cadenza — a careful arrangement constructed from loosely played parts. The feeling of a suite is created by stitching together the segments with guitar interludes, and so the rock groove of “Simeon” arrives neatly out of “Reuben”, serving up a psychedelic guitar solo over both a Miles-ian electric bass vamp and a horn line that echoes the opening phrase of “Caravan” as played by the Ellington band.
Bernstein’s ambitions have never been grander or more appealingly rendered than on “Gad”, the disc’s longest tune. With two drummers splashing the way forward, Bernstein opens with a recurring bassline that is doubled by bass clarinet, then trombone, and then builds into a stacked melody. Before long, however, a lighter groove emerges as a feature for Cressman that eventually heats up and merges back to the original harmonies. Cline solos in blues scrambles over the original bassline, but finally the groove and the melody disintegrates into the thin air from which it came.
One other example — the strongly arranged “Joseph”. Muted trumpet, muted trombone and two clarinets harmonize over congas until the bass enters with a line contructed of quick pairs of eighth notes. Bernstein sounds like Miles at his most mysterious, improvising as sloppy rock drums enter, then a new, more mournful melody emerges from the ensemble. The arrangement is winding and detailed as the tune progresses, with no standard “solos” as much as a continue musical environment that bubbles with both improvisation and written material commingling.
The other great inspiration for Diaspora Suite was filmmaker Robert Altman, with whom Bernstein worked on Kansas City. And the album is reminiscent of the great Altman films: carefully conceived but loosely captured, with each player allowed to spontaneously invent over a matrix of planning. The disc was largely recorded in just six hours, and the care and love of these musicians for Bernstein’s tunes and conception is obvious; they came into those six hours with true clarity.
Audacious and eclectic, Diaspora Suite may be the finest work of Steven Bernstein’s already scintillating career. Combining the leader’s deep connection to Jewish music with his reverence for both big band arrangement and for the electric experiments of Miles Davis, this recording comes out sounding like nothing else in jazz. It is nimble and heavy at once, a maze of musical contradictions each solved and understood by the simple and enjoyable act of listening.
My ears are ringing with it and hungry for more.