Territorial Imperatives

A party band fluent whether the language is Count Basie, Don Cherry, or 'Darling Nikki'

Still, Bernstein's most suitable vehicle remains MTO. In a recent issue of Downbeat, he suggested yet another provenance for the band, suggesting Charlie Haden's 1969 Liberation Music Orchestra—arranged by Carla Bley—as the LP that showed him ways "you could combine organized multivoiced writing with the more spontaneous energy music I was hearing," he said in the 1970s. The affinity with Bley was evident at the Jazz Standard on September 23, when MTO took a crack at Don Cherry's Relativity Suite as part of this year's Festival of New Trumpet Music. One of the Jazz Composer's Orchestra of America's first outside commissions, this loosely organized 1973 suite was Cherry's bid to universalize that era's emerging black consciousness—it's as much a period piece as anything MTO play from the 1920s, and along with wondering if 19 instruments could be successfully downsized to nine, the question going in was how on earth Bernstein could possibly do justice to Cherry's globalism minus tamboura, a string section, and East Asian ching. Bernstein answered by letting trombone and baritone supply a drone as needed, foregrounding the buzz of Burnham's pizzicato, and calling on Munisteri's plucked banjo for both exotic coloring and percussive suspense—employing the same instrument used for period flavor in 1920s material was the crowning touch. Functioning more as an editor than an arranger, Bernstein skimmed over sections that now seemed dated (including Cherry's ululations) while expanding on sprightly passing melodies that sounded like those Cherry routinely improvised on trumpet. The closing march came out of the blue in '73, but to an even greater extent than Cherry, MTO made it seem like what you'd been waiting for all along.

Listen as his "Happy Hour Blues" bleeds into Purple Rain.
photo: Ziga Koritnik
Listen as his "Happy Hour Blues" bleeds into Purple Rain.

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Save for Bernstein's trilling leads and a lovely a cappella spot by tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, there were few solos as such. This would change, I bet, if Relativity Suite were added to MTO's book and Bernstein continued to open it up. Cherry's LP is long out of print, and I doubt he performed the entire work in concert more than once. It's another of the many ambitious one-shots that fell through the cracks, and I'd hate to see MTO's reinterpretation suffer the same fate. Intellectual party band? Sure. But a time-traveling repertory outfit at home in whatever era it touches down in is even better.

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