Steven Bernstein has been so much a part of the downtown cultural exchange, through which the usual suspects are transmitted from one band to another in an endless game of musical chairs where the last man standing has to get a real job, it was surprising to learn that his early-January appearance at Jazz Standard was his first in an upscale joint midtown—that is, north of Houston. Leading his nine-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra, he noted, repeatedly, what a novelty it was to work in a place with heat. Sporting earrings, a loopy smile, and lavender trousers, he relished the role of refugee at the ball, mocking midtown manners. Management made its customary request for minimal conversation, to which Bernstein remonstrated that conversation was encouraged: “If you’re on a date it could be important; if you’re married, talk loud, ’cause she isn’t listening.” Funnier was the way he used boho irascibility to sell a righteous dose of jazz repertory.
Bernstein is a card-carrying card carrier. If the band wore uniforms and the leader enunciated his introductions (not a bad idea), his crew might do battle with, say, the spit-and-polish squad of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. For despite the holy-roller eclecticism, the playful attitude toward pitch, the we-make-it-up-as-we-go front, the faux insecurities of do-you-wanna-hear-more and are-you-having-a-good- time and well-I-dunno-we’ve-never-played-a-place-like-this, not to mention muttered whimsies concerning politics, dope, and other unmentionables, when the time comes, Bernstein clicks an invisible switch and the band pops into semi-flawless unison. At that point, you might imagine yourself in Harlem in 1929, listening to Lloyd Scott (obscure enough for you?) or W.C. Handy, except that there’s no room to dance and, besides, at any moment the unison may turn south. In truth, it isn’t Harlem Bernstein re-creates but the fanboy joy of late-night listening sessions to old records. He’s the R. Crumb of jazz.
“Dju recognize that solo?” he asked, referring to an interpolation in a piece that began with Delta guitar, pizzicato violin, and clarinet over stop-time bass. “NO?!” he wailed, more in sorrow than in anger. Don Byas’s opening tenor spot on Basie’s “Harvard Blues.” The whole class flunked and I was sobbing in shame when the band snapped into Preston Jackson’s “It’s Tight Jim,” casually introduced. I had to look that one up: Jackson, a trombonist remembered for his work with Louis Armstrong in the early ’30s, though he had a long career, recorded it in 1926 for Paramount. I envision the Millennialists sitting around the phonograph late at night, Bernstein holding the 78 to the light to assess scratch damage. Or has it actually been reissued? In any case, this was the best piece of the set. The leader offered a strong trumpet lead against trombonist Clark Gayton’s trills; Peter Apfelbaum played a gracious half-time tenor solo over ensemble chords and Ben Perowski’s rumbling drums; violinist Charles Burnham soloed with country-like multiple stops over Ben Allison’s bass, until the full rhythm section returned, the band barked staccato chords, and the piece transformed into a slow, handsomely voiced “All You Need Is Love” with improvised guitar overlay—which, in this context, was as left-field as Preston Jackson, but which made for a compelling closer, complete with an episode of birdlike peeping and a unison high-note finish.
For all his fish-out-of-water ingenuousness, Bernstein is not entirely unknown to the upper precincts, or vice versa. As a leader, his big act is Sex Mob, a quartet that established his irreverent attack, marrying gentility to up-yours while keeping the jokes subordinate to the music. But in addition he’s directed the Lounge Lizards, has worked on a couple of high-visibility film scores (Get Shorty, Kansas City), and backed Aretha, Mel Torme, Lou Reed, and Sting, among others. Still, he seems genuinely uncontaminated by breeding or stardust, and his enthusiasm is catching. He presides over a band that interprets ancient jazz as an old-time religion, only without the solemnity—more like old-time paganism, really.
One indication of his impiety is that he doubles on soprano trombone, usually called slide trumpet, an instrument whose jazz pedigree is almost exclusively pictorial and negative: Armstrong famously posed with one, which encouraged skeptics to accuse him of playing one to affect his astounding glissandi on records like “Lazy River.” For 70 years its renown involved Armstrong’s never playing it. Bernstein doesn’t go in for much tailgating, although he’s aces at growling into a derby, but his use of the archaic horn suggests the kind of insider authenticity that reverberates throughout the band. Take, for example, Erik Lawrence, who plays baritone sax solos that chug and groan as though Harry Carney, let alone Gerry Mulligan, never lived; or former Lounge Lizard clarinetist Doug Wieselman, who grows his sound to full pre-swing weight (limning the melody of “Happy Hour Blues,” by Lloyd Scott, brother of the slightly more famous Cecil Scott); or Apfelbaum, who savors quarter-tones, reaching into a bag no one has opened since Prince Robinson. If all this sounds like a heavy course in jazz arcana, the Orchestra itself does not. At its best, it strikes a balance between slap-happy repertory and raucous excess. At its worst, excess takes over, glee turns rote, and we’re not having as much fun as we’re supposed to. At the Jazz Standard, best outnumbered worst about eight to one.
The band’s spirit is such that it gets away with what a few years ago might have seemed borderline minstrelsy: a performance of “You’se a Viper,” boldly sung at a leisurely tempo by the band’s banjoist-guitarist, Doug Wamble. Music belongs to whoever cares enough to play it, and Wamble, who exudes instrumental élan and sings with plangent openness, knows this stuff cold. But while prettifying the title phrase would be as barbarous as, say, “Bess, You Are My Woman” or “You Are Nothing More Than a Hound Dog,” phrases like “I got to gets” paint the lily a coat darker than Jonah Jones did on the original 1936 Stuff Smith record (which, incidentally, was taken way up in tempo and has one of Jones’s best trumpet solos). Wamble also belabored the ending, drawing it out with tremolos and shtick that worked well enough at the club, but underscored the challenge the band will face when it records. The MTO, which has yet to release a CD, taped the Jazz Standard gig for possible release. But though a live performance captures a degree of spontaneity, interaction, and laughs that may or may not travel well, the clarity and discipline of a studio session might make a stronger case for its repertory.
In any case, the Millennial Territory Orchestra is a band with much promise, and should be making frequent trips across Canal to various heated venues. The immensity of arcane jazz promises a limitless book, and Bernstein’s arrangements draw out the musicians in the kind of flattering cameos that are a virtue of largish ensembles. It was a particular pleasure to hear Charlie Burnham away from Odyssey and other downtown bands, demonstrating elaborate chops and witty reflexes, and to hear Apfelbaum go deep inside and circumspectly outside, as the situation permitted. I really want to hear more of Wamble singing, too. Bernstein knows the strengths of these musicians and the others well enough to indulge in his own variation on what Butch Morris calls conduction—controlling sudden change-ups in dynamics, sending this contingent in while having the other lay out, and conveying withal the notion that this music is so much fun it can hardly contain itself.
Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra will appear midnight Friday, January 24, at Tonic.