BY ZIVIT SHLANK Slide trumpeter, composer, bandleader and madman Steven Bernstein is not much interested in convention so much as innovation. The man behind the infamous Sex Mob, has been a ubiquitous part of NYC’s downtown, underground scene since the 90s. He’s been known to merge the traditional, avante garde and free jazz with the soulful funk of Prince, the distinctive grunge of Nirvana, the theatricality of James Bond, even the catchy pop of the Macarena. He’s played with an enviable list of legends including Aretha Franklin, Sam Rivers and Lou Reed. He’s arranged and written for artists such as Marianne Faithful and Rufus Wainright. He’s scored films including Get Shorty, was musical director on documentaries including Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, and explored various facets of Jewish music with his Diaspora series. This is only begins to scratch the surface. His idol is Duke Ellington, who once said ‘there are two kinds of music: good music or bad music’, and Bernstein sets his watch by that dictum. In 1999, he formed the Millennial Territory Orchestra or MTO. What started out as a large experiment honing their skills at late night jam sessions at NYC’s now defunct Tonic jazz club, has turned into a large ensemble that tips its hat to Prohibition era pre-swing with a contemporary flair that honors pioneers and styles of both past and present. Their latest album, MTO Plays Sly, is a tribute to Sly & The Family Stone and by no means your ordinary cover band. If you’re unfamiliar with Bernstein, this is your perfect peak into his musical personality. Tonight Bernsterin and MTO will be headlining the Painted Bride’s Annual fundraiser, Black Cat Brew. It also happens to be Philadelphia Jazz Appreciation Day (FYI this is National Jazz Appreciation Month!). Phawker recently got on the horn with Bernstein to rap about Sly, the Bride and more.
PHAWKER: MTO stands for Millennial Territorial Orchestra. The name references the regional territory bands of the 1920s and 30s. They had a unique sound and history. What inspired you to incorporate that legacy with Sly’s music and your vision?
STEVEN BERNSTEIN: They were the pre-Big Band sound, the territory bands of the southern Midwest like Arkansas, Texas, Missouri and especially Kansas City. Much like with the territory bands, the face of Sly’s group was just so diverse; men and women, black and white, except instead of wearing uniforms, everyone got to look how they wanted to look. It was a democratic band made up of individuals and there was strength in numbers. I just couldn’t get that music out of my head. So I decided to put together my own territory band to see if we could play that music and merge it with the now. We started out just interpreting that style of music. Then as the group really got going, I started to hear arrangements in my head of other songs and the first one was “Ripple” by The Grateful Dead. It sounded like the Dead while also sounding like MTO. That’s when I realized ‘oh, okay, I can do what I want’. So I started exploring The Beatles, Prince, and Stevie Wonder with some Count Basie, Sun Ra, Don Cherry and my own tunes. I think Sly, too, was one of those people that broke it open and was really instrumental in exploring what is acceptable in one genre or another. Sly was also a great organizer and bandleader and wrote great arrangements. And with Sly’s music it’s so familiar than when people first hear it they say ‘oh, I know that song!’ and from there, you’re able to draw them in and take them on an adventure. Sly’s daughter heard it, wrote me on Facebook and said ‘thank you so much for this tribute to my father’s music. Usually it’s just ‘funky cover bands’. Some people just take Sly’s music and use the outlines. I tried to use the specifics. Once we got them down, we could move around and do what we want. The bottom line for me is that great music is great music and if you’re gonna play it, then play it! So that’s what we’re doing.
PHAWKER: I have to say when I first heard about the MTO Plays Sly project, I thought that is pretty ballsy. I meant that in a good way! Sly is iconic.
STEVEN BERNSTEIN: Well, yeah this is music that first captivated me when I was kid living in Berkeley, Cali. Hearing it on the radio, blasting from neighbor’s houses and hearing it through their walls. I can remember hearing it and thinking ‘oh wow!’ That music has always been in my psyche.
PHAWKER: You and MTO are headlining the Painted Bride’s Black Cat Brew tonight. It’s a celebration to honor the 39th year of their celebrated Jazz On Vine series plus their annual fundraiser so that they can continue to present their unique and adventurous programs. Why is the bride so special to you?
STEVEN BERNSTEIN: I’ve played there a few times and so I’ve got a lot of love for the Bride as well as Philly. When the record MTO Plays Sly had just come out, and it wasn’t easy to get gigs, it was Lenny Seidman, the world music and jazz curator at the Painted Bride, who showed excitement early on. MTO has a lot coming up. We’re playing shows at Bonnaroo, in Italy, Mexico, but the first guy to call us up was Lenny. So when I we got asked to do this, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. It’s the Bride, man; I’d do anything for them!
PHAWKER: April is National Jazz Appreciation Month and April 13th has been officially designated Jazz Appreciation Day in Philadelphia. The history of jazz in Philly is pretty extraordinary. Are you planning anything special to mark the occasion?
STEVEN BERNSTEIN: I decided to write one new arrangement for the show. I try not to let one gig go by without a new song. We have an incredible band for this show. There are a lot of subs this time, but they are all amazing. I got Kenny Wollesen on drums, Marty Ehrlich on clarinet, John Medeski on keys, Michael Blake on tenor and Will Bernard on guitar. They’re amazing musicians so I have to let the guys go and do their thing, ya know?! A famous producer from Philly, the late Joel Dorn, used to come hear the band all the time and he once said ‘Ya know sometimes I think you’re A Team is better than your B Team’ (laughs). Playing in Philly is really special because they’re the greatest audience. It’s one of the few places in the United States where you play a jazz gig and it attracts such a mixed race and mixed age audience. Black people, white people, students, old heads, they all come together. Philly is such a diverse music town. I’m really excited. I’m doing more instrumental stuff than I normally would because it’s Philly and it’s the Bride and I think its part of the tradition. It’s going to be wonderfully unhinged and yet totally in control at the same time.
MTO will perform a tribute to Sly Stone tonight at the Painted Bride as part of Black Cat Brew