Arranger, composer, brass maniac, and musical alchemist Steven Bernstein is an all-purpose gift to human ears. If you’re a living soul who has ever felt your foot tap or your bottom swing side-to-side because of, say, Ray Charles or Little Feat or Louis Armstrong, then you owe it to yourself to get Bernstein-ized. His musical net is wider than that, but let’s start there.
Bernstein’s latest, Good Time Music, is the second of a series of four “Community Music” albums, inspired by the time he spent playing and making arrangements for the “Midnight Ramble” series of casual concerts set up by drummer/singer Levon Helm (of the Band) at his property in Woodstock, New York. Bernstein’s versatility as a player is as legendary as Helm’s Arkansas soul-croak of a voice—he has written for/recorded with/toured across every realm of American music, from classic rock (U2, Donald Fagen, Elton John, Marianne Faithfull) to soul (Nona Hendryx, Macy Gray, Sharon Jones, Ben E. King) to various new-century artists spanning genres (My Morning Jacket, Angelique Kidjo, Joan as Police Woman). As a solo artist, he is most simply lumped under “jazz”, but that’s a word whose boundaries he busts as thoroughly as anyone else. His band Sexmob recorded an album of James Bond-related music, and his Millennial Territory Orchestra (“MTO”) is a band equally comfortable with material composed by Prince, Fats Waller, and Jerry Garcia.
Good Time Music puts the MTO side-by-side with singer Catherine Russell, known both as a background singer (Steely Dan, David Bowie) and a solo artist with a generous soul/jazz voice—and whose father happened to be Louis Armstrong’s musical director for many years. The six tunes that Bernstein frames for Russell’s voice are all blues-based and mostly written by artists we associate with New Orleans: Allen Toussant, Earl King, Professor Longhair, and Percy Mayfield, and they span a half-century from the 1920s to the 1970s. The performances are neither “jazz” as we narrowly think of that genre today, nor are they idiomatically “blues”, with the electric or acoustic guitar framing up 12-bar classics.
Instead, I want to suggest that this album is better than the work of a cross-genre outfit such as the Tedeschi Trucks Band (co-led by singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi and her husband, slide guitar master Derek Trucks). That band commands sell-out crowds in theatres worldwide because they are heard as being part of a “jam band” culture that unites fans of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, various alt-country acts, and bluegrass aficionados. Bernstein, Russell, and MTO—and particularly this set of gorgeous blues-drenched tunes and arrangements—is in the same glorious zone of enjoyment, just leaning less toward guitar solos and more toward this brilliant cast of brass players.
Tedeschi Trucks Band has a horn section too, and MTO gets tons of mileage out of the guitar playing or Matt Munisteri. But the similarities between these bands are less purely instrumental (MTO is five horns plus violin, no piano, TTB is three horns, keyboard, two drummers) than it is a matter of intention. Both bands make music from similar American pools of Black music, where soul music, rock ‘n’ roll, New Orleans funk, and jazz were constantly swapping juice. Particularly on Good Time Music, where MTO is fronting a brilliant soul singer, the similarities are even clearer.
Of course, TTB fronts the searing guitar of Trucks, whereas MTO boasts the delicious interweaving of horns in Bernstein’s arrangements and sophisticated jazz improvisation. Nevertheless, listen to MTO cover Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation”—Good Time‘s opening track—and ask yourself if Tedeschi and Trucks wouldn’t make a good timer out of this too, using much the same swaying, dirty, delicious, popping groove. Cat Russell is all relaxation and personality as she rides over the band, drummer Ben Perowsky and bassist Ben Allison drawing on New Orleans to get everything moving, and then gives way to Curtis Fowlke’s trombone solo.
That Crescent City thump is also brilliant on Allen Toussaint’s “Yes, We Can”, with fiddler Charlie Burnham sounding less like a “jazz” violinist than like a guy on a porch somewhere who happens to have super-slick technique. Bernstein sets the horns jabbing like a light-footed boxer dancing around Munisteri’s guitar and the drums. Professor Longhair is represented by “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand”, which starts as a slow-moaner (with Hammond organ cat John Medeski sitting in on the ol’ B3) and then gets down to funky backbeat. The collective improvisation that takes the whole album close to an end draws on that other grand New Orleans tradition, with all the horns improvising collectively but with the melody never far away. Then Russell restarts the tune with just guitar under her as if that back porch were utterly real. The band reenters with dancing soul, and you never want it to end.
In the middle of it all are other incredible treasures. “Good Ol’ Wagon” puts you in the mind of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong working together, a blues track with an arrangement that updates the ’20s sound with some modern harmony but also maintains the century-old feeling with slippery clarinets and Bernstein at his Pops-est. “Careless Love” has been recorded by just about everyone, from Bessie to Eric Clapton and Willie Nelson, so Bernstein and Russell again have it both ways. The arrangement starts with a rock groove that slips back and forth to old-school swing at will. The baritone saxophone solo by Erik Lawrence is concise and elegant. Perhaps it’s notable that it’s one of the few moments on Good Time Music when it seems like a “jazz solo” is doled out.
Most of the time, the reeds in the band are kept busy working in the center of Bernstein’s ingenious charts. Peter Apfelbaum and Doug Weiselman play tenor lines (dig the ominous opening of “Come On”, the Earl King rocker), wail clarinet slipstreams, and punch out critical heartbeat lines. These guys don’t need “solos” because the MTO is more concerned with operating as a variant on a dance band. The long stretch in the middle of “Come On”, where the group plays an insistent stop-time groove while little takes center stage, makes its point: Bernstein wants you to hear and feel the groove more than he wants you to marvel at any modern jazz Coltrane-ing. This is a band, a combo, a dance collective, a single blues singer with a guitar. It’s a machine that connects itself to your own yearning.
All of which is to say that Good Time Music is that rare wonder: deep in its sense of history and honest artistic expression but pure joy on the surface as well. The elements that may be nostalgic—the swing rhythms and use of elements from pre-modern jazz—all come from an honest place. Bernstein deploys the verities of jazz arrangement with a light touch, and his band is just small enough that it doesn’t sound like Count Basie as much as it sounds like the E Street Band or TTB, which is to say, a rock band that still cares about a certain kind of soulful showmanship.
But nothing else about this date suggests the least amount of self-consciousness. Catherine Russell never sings in imitation of an early jazz icon but as a modern soul singer who happens to know her historical influences with fluid naturalness. On his trumpet and slide-trumpet, Bernstein doesn’t sound like Armstrong (or Roy Eldridge, or Gillespie, or anyone else), but he rings with sympathy for their influences. The band simply plays the music as if small acoustic big bands (“territory” bands—the term that gives MTO its name) were the most natural vehicle of all for parties you’d ever want to have. And maybe they are, at least in Steven Bernstein’s hands.
There are two more installments in this series due out in 2022, all recorded in the same set of sessions. The next one features an arrangement written for the late New Orleans pianist Henry Butler on old tunes like “Black Bottom Stomp” and the more modern Ellington classic “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”. The last, Popular Culture, will include arrangements of tunes by the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Eddie Harris, and Charles Mingus, among others. And there you go again: the meta-verse of Steven Bernstein stretches from the turn of the century New Orleans to 1960s Haight Ashbury and beyond.
It’s not just for jazz fans, and maybe it’s not quite “jazz”. It’s just wonderful.