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It took three years, but something worthwhile belatedly came out of 1996’s Kansas City, Robert Altman’s worst movie before A Prairie Home Companion: Trumpeter Steven Bernstein, the film’s associate music producer, formed his Millennial Territory Orchestra for a series of midnight gigs at Tonic in the fall of 1999. In his brief liner notes to MTO Volume 1, the nine-piece intellectual party band’s shamefully long-in-coming debut CD, he says his inspiration was the many hours he spent analyzing 1920s and ’30s territory band recordings to provide Altman with authentic period arrangements.
Territory bands—so-called because they barnstormed regionally, usually throughout the heartland or Southwest—helped disseminate swing, bringing it to remote gin mills and dance halls ignored by booking agents for genuine recording stars like Ellington and Armstrong. Even if jazz supremacists blanch at the comparison, these were the Top 40 cover bands of their day, typically relying on stock arrangements of other ensembles’ hits. But many developed original repertoires and signature sounds, none more storied than Walter Page’s Blue
Devils, the Oklahoma City–based outfit that Count Basie took up with in 1926.
Basie comes to mind because he figures twice on MTO Volume 1. A punchy “Pennies From Heaven” clearly has his famous 1937 recording in mind, Bernstein’s arrangement substituting Matt Munisteri’s acoustic guitar and dreamy hipster deadpan for Basie’s piano and Jimmy Rushing’s forthright shout with no loss of verve. The drive and glide of Basie’s original rhythm section elude most reinterpreters, but MTO bassist Ben Allison and drummer Ben Perowsky nail it with no sweat on Bennie Moten’s “Toby,” throwing in a few bebop accents for surprise. MTO‘s only other vintage revivals—unless you count five pop covers dating from the ’60s through the ’80s as vintage—are two blues from the 1920s, neither in anybody’s canon: “Boy in the Boat,” which a colleague tells me Fats Waller used as a blueprint for “Squeeze Me,” and Cecil Scott and His Symphonic Serenaders’ “Happy Hour Blues.” Upgrading both to Ellingtonia, Bernstein treats them in a manner that seems idiomatically proper before revealing itself as postmodern—”Happy Hour” begins at the Cotton Club (Munisteri even switching to banjo) but ends at next summer’s Vision Festival, Bernstein’s trumpet bolting over a choir of dissonant horns as bass and drums abandon any semblance of an identifiable meter.
Those aforementioned pop covers make it even clearer that Bernstein’s “territory” is conceptual rather than chronological, and cheeky without being implicitly tongue-in-cheek. Who thinks of “Cry Baby Cry” when remembering the Beatles’ White Album? Bernstein’s version begins like a Carla Bley dirge circa Genuine Tong Funeral, with Peter Apfelbaum’s tenor rising emotive and Gato Barbieri–like above brass and high reeds; the marching melody is introduced by Elliot Lawrence’s muscular baritone, and by the time he’s finished ripping at it, you’re deluded into thinking this was one of Lennon’s very best songs. Prince’s “Darling Nikki” is teased into a round with cacophony in the overlaps, and Charles Burnham’s fiddle eases “Ripple” into the rustic blues the Dead would have wanted, if they’d only known how to get it. There’s more doo-wack-a-doo on King Curtis’s “Soul Serenade”—the album’s most drastic overhaul—than on any of the ’20s material. Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” interpreted more or less straight, is essentially a feature for guest singer and guitarist Doug Wamble—it riffs on a little too long and reduces MTO to backup, but I bet it’d go over big at a dance. Lord knows there’s already a whole lot of shaking going on throughout MTO Volume 1 whenever trombonist Clark Gayton tailgates.
Bernstein is a former member of the Lounge Lizards, a band whose studied detachment from jazz tradition disguised a passionate commitment to it. Similarly, his quartet Sex Mob risk alienating jazz purists with their seeming flippancy. Featuring Bernstein originals, Sexotica is an homage to Martin Denny, a 1960s purveyor of tiki bar MOR. Sex Mob laid down tracks in real time, then allowed the mixing team Good and Evil to have their way with them. Not to say the resulting special effects aren’t ear-catching and frequently startling, but Bernstein and saxophonist Briggan Krauss’s yawping reaches such a fever pitch on “Dick Contino’s Blues” that I can’t help wishing I could hear them straight up.
Two other new releases involving Bernstein as an arranger arrived almost simultaneously with MTO Volume 1
and Sexotica this summer. His contribution to Baby Loves Jazz—a record subtitled “Go Baby Go!” and presumably intended for toddlers, not sweethearts—amounts to work for hire, and not being a parent, I’m probably not the one to judge it, though I will say you could do worse than “The Banana Boat Song” and “Lullaby Jazz” if what you’re shopping for is “A Child’s Introduction to Electric Miles.” Finally, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is the uneven soundtrack to a movie that’s compelling largely on account of the interview segments with the Great White Mope himself. But amid attempts by the McGarrigles and Rufus Wainwright to shoehorn Cohen into generic folk or cabaret, Bernstein’s organ washes and slow Memphis horn crescendos assist the androgynous Antony (from Antony and the Johnsons) in transforming “If It Be Your Will” into a quivering erotic sacrifice—a killer soul ballad.
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.
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.