A fixture on Manhattan bandstands since 1979, Steven Bernstein is attached to very old crafts: trumpet, arranging, and jazz that sounds like jazz. His newest album, MTO Plays Sly (Royal Potato Family), opts for the all-star route with vocals, and features Antony Hegerty, Martha Wainwright, and others fronting atop Bernstein’s takes on Sly and the Family Stone tunes, as set for his loose and disciplined Millennial Territory Orchestra. He’s spent the last half-decade and change as house arranger for Hal Willner’s giant tribute concerts, and he’s played gigs with Levon Helm, Rufus Wainwright, Elton John, and others. Bernstein’s catalog as a bandleader goes far beyond Willner’s populist art music into a body of work that ties together moody dub jazz, joyous James Bond film cues, Jewish cantorial transcriptions, and the musics played by regional dance orchestras during the 1920s. SOTC spoke with him about the Sly Stone project, and how the legendary musician’s music fit into the New York avant-garde scene 30 years ago.
What are the ups and downs of making an all-star record?
For me, it was all ups. I’ve done so many vocal things over the past five years—all the Hal Willner projects, Levon Helm, Rufus Wainwright—and I’ve always been working for the vocalist. When you’re working with a vocalist, your job is to make things comfortable for the vocalist. And I’m trying to do that and still making things cool. And it’s worked, but the vocalist always comes first. They’re the divas, and they need to feel comfortable in whatever situation they’re in. So here we are, it’s my record, the vocalists are working for me. Now the tables are turned. It’s on my turf. A lot of songs, the singers don’t even come in until a third of the way through the song, which somebody pointed out and I’d been thinking about subliminally. That’s exactly what those old Billie Holiday 78s were like, or any of those old singers. It’s always one or two choruses of instrumental.
In places, I’m doing nine-minute songs. So you’ve got three minutes of instrumental before the singer comes in. And it’s the same concept, I want to set the mood with music before the singer comes in. I picked the singers I knew could deal with these arrangements, but the arrangements are thick. They’re not background arrangements. They’re foreground arrangements. I took every part off the records, and they’re in the arrangements. If you hear the violin playing, maybe they’re playing Freddie’s guitar part or Rose’s background vocal. If you hear the trombone playing, that might be an organ part from Sly. When you do it with horns, it sounds a lot different. It sounds like jazz. With electric organ and guitar, it’s rock or soul. But even though it’s the same melodic material, the flavor is so different.
You’ve said that the Sly and the Family Stone’s records made a lot of sense in the context of what was going on when you moved to New York in 1979.
The avant-garde guys—what they’d call the loft guys—had reached a certain thing with that music and it wasn’t going much farther, it was starting to sound the same. And then suddenly the punk-funk guys showed up, James White and the Blacks and Defunkt, and that gave a huge shot of energy to the music. The horns were playing in that so-called avant-garde style, which I think of as a more vocal style of playing, but now you had rhythm and that punk angst to play off the free music or energy music angst. That music made a lot of sense if you were alive when people were protesting against the Vietnam War. The reason people wanted to hear John Coltrane play an hour of energy music instead of going to hear the Oscar Peterson Trio was because John Coltrane’s energy music had a lot more to do with the feeling of young people in the United States.
I would hang out at the Squat Theater, that was my main hang. On alternating nights, it was basically Defunkt, Sun Ra, and [John Lurie’s] Lounge Lizards. There was also a band called Noise-R-Us, which is a pretty unknown band at this point, but there must be some stuff somewhere. Noise-R-Us was very punky. The singer was Mik Ortiz, a real New York street kid, a crazy noise guitar player [Jim Matus], and 3 or 4 saxophones, and electric bass and drums. That was the home base of that kind of music, but you could hear it at Mudd Club or Danceteria or Tier 3.
It wasn’t like slick funk, like really produced. It was really raw. The closest thing to it were albums like [Sly & the Family Stone’s} Fresh (1973) and There’s A Riot Goin’ On (1971), these really stripped-down grooves that had all this room because there wasn’t a lot melody on it. It was bare-bones rhythm and bizarre recording. It left a lot of room for imagination. It wasn’t like Shalamar or the Commodores or Earth, Wind, and Fire. It was a much more raw, stripped down funk, and that’s what the downtown people really related to.
What’s your take on Sly these days?
Sly has been going through so much stuff for so long. For so long, nobody even knew where he was. Then, right around 9/11, I heard that a friend of mine had gone down to LA and built an early ProTools studio for him, and recorded an entire record. And the guy is like, “It’s a great record, it’s got 25 songs, Sly’s been doing this the whole time, he has a whole backlog of songs.” I’ve got friends with P-Funk who say he’d just show up for a few days, sing with them, then disappear. So obviously he’s got some sort of issue, whether it’s his drug use or mental illness or a combination of the two. Everyone says if you’re hanging with Sly, he’s still Sly. He’s charming, he’s witty, he’s writing songs, coming up with these funny little phrases. But obviously there’s something in there that’s now allowing him to reenter the world. Think about it; he’s been out of the normal world since, like 1979, which is the last time he put out a record on a label, and I don’t think he finished one since 1976. That’s like 35 years in the clouds.
The guy who made the Sly documentary, who is in touch with Sly, heard [our version of] “Family Affair,” and freaked out and told me, “Send me an MP3, I’m sending this to Sly.” What I’m hoping, which could happen, maybe, if Sly is interested in this project, this’d be a great way for him not to have to get in front of some band that’s playing, like, the original versions of his songs, stretching them out forever waiting for him to get on stage, and putting him more in an artistic situation. “We have these arrangements of these songs, why don’t you come and sing them with us?” It’d be easy for him. We’ve already got singers. Any song he wants to sing he can sing. And if he doesn’t, he can sit back and do whatever he’s been doing for the last 35 years.