Steven Bernstein is a jazz trumpeter, but he’s so much more than that it just makes your head spin like a top punched up with a shot of adrenaline. Composer, arranger, soundtrack composer, sideman, leader — sure, all that. But mostly the guy is a visionary — a musical seer whose thoughts all lead to explosive FUN. His Millennial Territory Orchestra is Exhibit A.
MTO Volume 1 documents this nine-piece band live in the studio, playing music that ranges from 1920’s good-time tracks like “Boy in the Boat” to Prince’s PMRC-creating “Darling Nikki”. Using the instrumentation and arrangement idiosyncrasies of the “territory bands” that roamed the U.S. midsection in the pre-big band era, Mr. Bernstein finds a way to unite the sexy groove of nearly a century of great music from Don Redman to Sly Stone to today. This is not a throwback record of “old jazz”, nor is it a gimmicky example of an avant-garde musician recording pop hits for comic effect (my apologies to the late, brilliant Lester Bowie, whose Brass Fantasy bands did just that). Rather, this is seriously fun music that obeys no boundaries — and maybe it’s the best jazz album of 2006 so far.
Mr. Bernstein is known for crossing borders with a cheeky smile. His band Sex Mob plays James Bond themes with dash, and his series of records putting klezmer themes and Jewish melodies into various off-contexts (Diaspora Hollywood, Diaspora Blues, and Diaspora Soul) are justly celebrated. But the Millennial Territory Orchestra uses the broadest palate of any of his groups: trumpet, trombone, three reeds (clarinet and saxophones), violin, guitar/banjo, bass, drums, and vocals. And though it trades in a vocabulary of jazz voicings from before World War Two, each musician is given the broadest latitude for individual expression. As a result, the ensemble of “Happy Hour Blues” sounds positively vintage at one moment and daringly modern the next, with the freedoms of Ornette Coleman living contentedly within a hip two-step groove.
Mr, Bernstein’s fascination with the territory bands (like McKinney’s Cotton Pickers) started when he worked as a consultant for Kansas City, the Robert Altman film. “I was wondering what would happen if you played this music live again? Because any version of this music that we have is like a three-minute bad recording.” Here, the band does much more than recreate the past — it brings the free-wheeling sensibility of the territory bands into the present. It’s smashing because it’s designed to be slightly ragged — like the best rock ‘n’ roll. The voices are not perfectly tight even though the musicianship is stellar. As a result, the sound is brash and raucous.
When the band builds up the start of Prince’s “Little Nikki” from plucked violin to tenor saxophone over bashing horn vamp, things are both bracingly new and authentically classic. You know the tune from its harmonies long before Mr. Bernstein states the melody on slide trumpet at the four-minute mark. Muted trombone (Clark Gayton) gets a crack at it, as does Charles Burnham on violin and a fanfare-accompanied Ben Perowsky on drums. It’s so much fun — music with heart and imagination as big as the country — that you almost forget that it’s being made by so-called “downtown” musicians on a jazz record label.
I dare you to resist the horns-and-violin start of “Ripple”, all bounces and smilin’-dirty blues, which then slides into a 12/8 groove that lets both Mr. Burnham and Doug Wieselman’s clarinet do some real damage. “Toby” sounds like some very early Basie madness, with the Bens (Allison on bass and Perowsky on drums) in a pocket deeper than a canyon. “Soul Serenade” is like a country stroll — the bass taking its sweet time, the horns in a rough alignment that suggests relaxation more than precision, the soloists all telling you a story and never glancing at their watches. All this is nice, yet these are not the best tracks.
Dig Matt Munisteri playing guitar and singing on “Pennies From Heaven”, a slice of nostalgia at first that breathes with modern jazz elasticity as Erik Lawrence’s sublime baritone solo takes flight. I dare you to find anything corny in “Cry Baby Cry”, which slowly winds its way up on the back of an expressive tenor solo then sets off on a slow-funk amble not afraid to bask in backbeat and blues with Mr. Lawrence again rip-roaring terrific. How about this ingenious version of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”? Doug Wamble guests on blues guitar and vocal, but the arrangement fuses Motown with country-blues fiddle and strutting horn figures that harmonize wailing clarinet with brass. Excuse my French, but this shit’s so crazy it just might work It does work. It pops out of your speakers and has you by the throat before you can think to object.
“Here I am, baby!” Mr. Wamble cries out, in harmony with the horns. And you’re thinking: Yeah, where was this music yesterday? But it’s here now.