A Few Minutes With… Steven Bernstein of the Millennial Territory Orchestra
Story and interview by J Hunter
To my mind, multi-instrumentalist Steven Bernstein made the Jazz Hall of Fame the minute he came up with the concept for Sex Mob. You have to love a group that plays music as smart as they do while carrying a band name that sounds like a headliner on the death metal bar-band circuit.
But Bernstein’s done a lot more than take Bond film theme songs and launch them into orbit: He was a longtime member of the Levon Helm Band, playing regularly at one of the coolest concert experiences I’ve ever experienced – the Midnight Ramble (Bernstein wrote the horn charts for Helm’s Grammy Award-winning 2009 disc Electric Dirt); he was part of the monster horn section that drove my #1 Jazz Disc of 2011, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s Race Riot Suite; he’s composed and arranged music for movie and television projects, and the list of artists he’s arranged for include Elton John, Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright and Marianne Faithfull.
Bernstein’s latest concept – a sensational re-boot of music by Sylvester Stewart (aka Sly Stone, the electrifying leader of R&B/funk trailblazers Sly & the Family Stone) – was made marvelous flesh by his other band, the eight-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra on the disc MTO Plays Sly. Greater Nippertown got a taste of the sweet-yet-smoky goodness MTO cooks up when they appeared at MASS MoCA a few years ago, playing music Bernstein had written to accompany Laurel & Hardy silent films. When Bernstein and MTO takes the stage at 2:30pm on Sunday (September 16) at the Lake George Jazz Weekend: Jazz at the Lake, they’ll be giving Shepard Park a new look at some of the funkiest music ever made. And, of course, admission to the whole two-day fest is free…
Bernstein was kind enough to talk to me about one of the most interesting discs I’ve heard in a long time:
Q: Does the way Sly is talked & written about nowadays frustrate you? Sly was always kind of his own reality show, but now the music he wrote and the artists he influenced are barely mentioned.
A: Sly wasn’t always his own reality show. He was a very focused and hard working musician-producer-composer for years before his other habits took over. He was well known for his work ethic, and superstardom had a negative effect on that. I think his influence is taken for granted now, because people assume music was always this way.
Q: Do you remember the first time you heard Sly and the Family Stone? Also, what’s your favorite Sly song, and why?
A: Growing up in Berkeley, Sly was on the radio all the time, and my neighbors had older kids, who were always blasting Sly. Having one favorite Sly song is like having one favorite Ellington song. Impossible!
Q: For me, what set Sly & the Family Stone apart was the vocals – not just because Sly’s ability to put a lyric across is very under-rated, but because the band also had other distinctive vocalists like Larry Graham and Cynthia Jarrett. That said, how hard was it to find vocalists that would do Sly’s songs justice?
A: I’m lucky enough to be friends with many amazing vocalists, so it wasn’t hard for me. I would have liked to have had Levon and Jim James sing as well, but schedules did not allow that.
Q: Sandra St. Victor is amazing on this date: Aside from the fact that she’s got this hugely expressive voice, her interpretation really brought out the spiritual side of “Stand” and “Skin I’m In.” Was that what you were shooting for all along, or did she bring that to the recording date?
A: That’s ALWAYS what I’m looking for.
Q: Sly doesn’t get nearly the love he deserves as a keyboardist, but you’ve kind of been addressing that, too: There’s a great YouTube video of MTO playing “Stand” with John Medeski on B3, and you’ve got the great Bernie Worrell playing on the recording. How cool was it to play this music with Bernie, who was such a big part of Parliament/Funkadelic?
A: Bernie was amazing to work with. He’s a true improvisor, always reacting. He also has a very serene, positive and kind presence. Doesn’t get any better than that!
Q: The original recording of “Family Affair” seems like just another Sly groover, but your arrangement – and Antony Hegarty’s treatment of the lyric – shows what a really sad song Sly wrote. What inspired you to come up with your version?
A: I never know what inspires things, but as far as that particular groove, I had written the arrangement, and Martha Wainwright sang it at the original show. She suggested a “Simply Red” type of feel, and we went from there. Antony really found the melancholy in the lyrics.
Q: You throw a real curveball into the mix with the banjo on “Sly Notions,” and then you bring the banjo back for that incredible ragtime version of “Life.” Of all the instruments in all the world, I’d never have associated banjo with Sly! How and when did you come up with it?
A: It just seemed natural to me: All this talk of “Americana”… What’s more Americana than Sly? When I was touring with Levon, I heard a lot of bluegrass bands, and realized that bluegrass is basically Count Basie-KC style played on string instruments. It’s all connected.
Q: “Que Sera, Sera” started life as a fairly innocuous Doris Day song, but Sly actually found the funk in it, and then you really take it into a really dark, bitter place. Is this the way you’ve always seen the piece, or did this version come out while working on it with Martha Wainwright (whose performance is completely off the charts)?
A: I’ve been hearing it like this for 30 years. I just needed a chance (and the knowledge) to do it.
Q: Bill Laswell’s remix of “Thank You for Talkin’ To Me Africa” is really interesting – not only because it’s a really cool take, but because “Africa” was also a remix of one of Sly’s biggest hits. Talk a little about your version of “Africa,” and please give us your thoughts on the original version.
A: The original version is one of the most influential minimalist pieces in recorded history. I feel it was a real game-changer. For my version, I add a lot of horn parts from tunes across Sly’s history, including a riff from “You’re the One” – which he produced for his sister – and many other references. There’s also some Ellington in there.
Q: Sly’s songs were a lot of things, but “innocuous” wasn’t one of them: “Stand”, “Life” and “You Can Make It If You Try” are real statements of empowerment, and your take on “Everyday People” really shows how much of a political statement Sly was making. In this polarized age where even chicken sandwiches make everybody crazy, aren’t the lyrics of “Everyday People” more relevant than ever?
Hornman Steven Bernstein leads his Millennial Territory Orchestra into Shepard Park in Lake George at 2:30pm on Sunday (September 16) as a featured performer at the Lake George Jazz Weekend: Jazz at the Lake festival. Sponsored by the Lake George Arts Project, the fest kicks off on Saturday (September 15) with performances by Emilio Solla & Bien Sur (1pm), Sachal Vasandani (2:30pm), the Warren Wolf Group (4:15pm) and Donald Harrison, Jr. & Congo Square Nation (7:30pm). In addition to Bernstein’s MTO, Sunday’s line-up also includes John Tank & the Tin Palace Reunion Band (1pm) and John Benitez with Donald Harrison, Jr. (4:15pm). Admission is FREE.