Blazing New Trails Into Old Territory

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Did you hear what happened last week? This booking agency sent two big bands around to various jazz festivals. One group plays strict re-creations of classic jazz from the pre-war period, like Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks; the other plays original modern and postmodern jazz, like Charles Tolliver.Well, somehow they got the libraries of the two bands mixed up, and the avant-garde ensemble and the swing band had to play each other’s material. Both groups wound up sounding like Fletcher Henderson Meets the Art Ensemble Of Chicago.

That never really happened, but it is a remarkably accurate description of Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, which has just released its first album and is playing this Friday at Tonic. The charismatic trumpeter and bandleader, who dresses like a bowling suburbanite circa 1955 and looks like he could play Mini-Me to Vin Diesel, first began leading this extraordinary nine-piece orchestra 1999; hence the “Millennial.” The term “territory” derives from the hundreds of local bands, usually based in the South and Midwest — like the San Antonio-based Boots and His Buddies or Snooks and His Memphis Ramblers — that played gutsy and jazzy dance music with plenty of energy and rhythm but never made it to the big time.

By putting the two terms together, Mr. Bernstein, who also fronts the popular band Sex Mob, is postulating that if one of these vintage territory bands had made it to the millennium, this is what it might sound like.

While Mr. Bernstein’s style is strictly his own, there is a long precedent for this blending of styles, genres, decades, and generations. In a 1965 concert, Charles Mingus, always in the vanguard of jazz innovation, more or less spontaneously launched into “Cocktails for Two,” a pop hit of his youth that no one had taken seriously in 30 years. On one level, Mingus was parodying the sweet bands of the ’30s (like Guy Lombardo’s) and the unctuous radio announcers who accompanied them, but he also was blending the techniques of the Jazz Age with his own post-modern approach.

Ten years later, Sun Ra, the most celebrated bandleader of the free jazz era, began combining jazz of the postmodern and pre-modern varieties when he paid tribute to such antecedents as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson.

By the ’80s, a generation of young musicians had grown up with Mingus and Sun Ra, and the deliberate blending of new and old became more common.The leader of this movement was the tenor saxophonist David Murray, a resolute postmodernist who was nonetheless steeped in tradition and frequently paid homage to musicians as diverse as Sidney Bechet, Paul Gonsalves and Albert Ayler. Around this time, Jon Pareles of the New York Times came up with a much-repeated term to describe the ensembles of Mr. Murray and his colleagues: avant-gutbucket.

Even though Mr. Bernstein is only six years younger than Mr. Murray, his writing for ensemble sounds like he had the benefit of prolonged exposure to the avant-gutbucket music of the ’80s and early ’90s.But whereas the Murray Octet almost always sounded like a band of contemporary players who were exploring the past, Mr. Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestral just as often suggests a bunch of jazzmen from the Roaring ’20s who were transported forward in a time machine.

The new album, “Millennial Territory Orchestra Volume 1” (Sunnyside SSC 1158), begins with “The Boy in the Boat,”an ancient blues (the title is a euphemism for the female reproductive organ) that Fats Waller reworked for his first hit, “Squeeze Me,” and which was recorded definitively in a band treatment by the Harlem-based Charlie Johnson and his Paradise Band in 1928. This is one of the relatively straight-ahead treatments by the MTO — there are no screaming free jazz interludes, but the intonation and precision are somewhat less exacting than what, say, Gunther Schuller or Wynton Marsalis would insist upon. In fact, like Sun Ra’s Arkestra before it, the MTO plays with the same scrappy and occasionally sloppy energy as the original Territory bands.

Mr. Bernstein gets considerably further out on “Happy Hour Blues,” based on a 1927 record by the multireed player Lloyd Scott.The first thing one notices on the MTO version is that the new clarinet solo isn’t as good as the original by Scott, although MTO baritone sax player Erik Lawrence gives Scott a run for his money. The second is Mr. Bernstein opens up the arrangement and takes it into all sorts of directions no one would have thought of in 1927. He plays a long, choppy trumpet solo accompanied by bass and drums (there is no piano in the MTO), and has the other brass answer him discordantly, suggesting an imaginary meeting of Don Cherry and Don Redman.

There are also two slices of Count Basie-ana here, vintage and classic. The charging “Toby,”from Basie’s early years with Bennie Moten in Kansas City, showcases what is probably MTO’s most precise playing. “Pennies From Heaven” is based on the famous Basie version of 1937, with the guitarist and singer Matt Munisteri taking the place of the Count (playing the intro on acoustic guitar rather than piano) and sounding more like country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers than Basie’s resident blues singer, Jimmy Rushing, in his vocal.

Much of the rest of the album is devoted to Mr. Bernstein’s radically revised treatment of blues and rock songs that caught his fancy, including tunes by Prince (“Darling Nikki”) and the Grateful Dead (“Ripple”).King Curtis’s 1968 “Soul Serenade” is a mellow, soprano sax-driven instrumental that anticipates Grover Washington and much of the smooth jazz movement. The MTO’s rendition is considerably gnarlier, making the tune sound like it was played at New Orleans’s Funky Butt Hall in the ‘20s. Mr. Bernstein dresses up this number in a way that’s both simple and elaborate, adding a tenor sax intro and giving the main melody to Mr. Lawrence’s baritone. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” is a rather more famous tune by Stevie Wonder, with a vocal by another outstanding guitarist-singer, Doug Wamble, a guest with the MTO who sounds considerably better in Bernstein’s settings than he does on his own albums.

Earlier this month, the band played gigs at Tonic and in the Rubin Museum’s Harlem in the Himalayas series, where it offered many pieces not on this first volume, most notably treatments of Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Speaks” and “Rag, Mama, Rag,” an ancient blues that goes back at least as far as Blind Boy Fuller and up through Bob Dylan and the Band.

It’s no doubt a promising sign that the album is called “Volume One.” It may not be a particularly catchy title, but it comes with the assurance that the band’s future will include even more surprising ways of examining the past.

The New York Sun

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