I'm not sure what's going on. Either New York slide-trumpet player and bandleader Steve Bernstein is getting better, or I'm coming around (maybe both). Bernstein, who with his band Sex Mob has been making reasonably amusing and background-filling albums for the better part of a decade, never really clicked with me. His music seemed so insubstantial, so resolutely finger-poppin' hey-daddy ironically-detached aren't-we-cool hipsterish, that I never gave it much of a chance.
In retrospect, I think that's a shame. Because behind the wide-lapel cheapo porno shtick he's peddled is a bandleader whose guiding purpose in life is to make music for people to have a good time by.
That skill of making good-time music doesn't seem to get a whole lot of respect. All the music critics swoon over Brian Wilson's brain-fractured experimentation, and ignore the sweet and fun stuff. They flip out over the far-out stylings on Smile, but what about "Surf City?" "Surf City" is a perfect song, a summer song, a song about good times and scantily clad ladies cavorting on a white sand beach. No respect for "Surf City."
All the nerds (all the world!) swoon over Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for some silly-ass reason, and while they acknowledge that the early stuff sure is some crack songwriting, the consensus seems to be that drugs and four hundred hours of studio time somehow trump, you know, attention to extraneous cruft like melody and lyrics. A song like "A Day in the Life" demands to be appreciated, like it was hanging in some museum, but there ain't a damn song in the world that sums up the innocence of young love more than "I Want To Hold Your Hand."
And, okay, yes, over the years I have spent a lot of time talking up music that's more intellectually rewarding than aesthetically pleasing, I won't deny it. How could I deny it? Y'all got Google. And yes, I haven't always cared for Sex Mob. I always thought they were more gimmicky and clever than actually good. And I stand by that assessment.
But recently, Steve Bernstein's been on a hell of a tear. He recently turned up on drummer Bobby Previte's outstanding Coalition of the Willing project, a Bitches Brew for the new millennium that cuts an atmosphere of Miles-esque darkness with generous slices of rock, thrilling improvisation, and twisty, funky soloing from Bernstein.
And now, his new project, the Millennium Territory Orchestra is a bold yet frivolous tribute to a gone and nearly forgotten era in American popular music.
In the 1920s and 1930s, 'territory' bands plied circuits all around the country. Minneapolis bands would play from Madison to Kansas City. Cleveland bands would range from Detroit to Pittsburgh to Yellow Springs, bringing that era's freewheeling proto-swing sound to dancehalls, honky tonks, and bars. Many if not most of these bands vanished without a trace, remembered only in faded photo albums and in stories swapped in nursing homes around the country. Few made recordings, and those who did released three-minute 78s to a market that was not yet national, that did not yet have any mechanism for preserving their work. Little wonder, then, that not many people remember a genre that's not quite Dixieland (tied to New Orleans, a city very good at remembering) and not quite swing (whose rise coincided with the rise of radio).
Forty years later, groups like the territory bands would be playing psychedelic lunk-rock and being collected in lavish four-disc box sets with hundred-page booklets chronicling the history of every one of them in loving detail. But for the territory bands there were no box sets, there was no national FM radio network. There were just dance floors, open roads, and the occasional chicken dinner.
Steve Bernstein recently came across some recordings from this great lost era in American music, and heard something he liked. "I was getting really fascinated with this music and wondering what would happen if you played this music live again. Because any version of this music we have is like a three-minute bad recording. We know what it looks like, because ther's all these great pictures of guys in tuxedoes holding their instruments. But it's almost like there's more pictures of the music then there are recorded documents of the music. I wanted to bring this music back to life."
In 1999, Bernstein first brought together a group of New York's finest improvisers to play some of this music. Since then, he's been periodically soaking in it, so much so that on Volume 1, the first album by the Millennial Territory Orchestra, he can graft the sound and style of the territory bands, with their hotchachacha big lapel black bottom crawling style, to both original compositions and modern adaptations of Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" and Prince's "Darling Nikki" without batting an eye.
Volume 1 is a great party record, a serious slab of frivolous good time music, full of hot jazz, nasty soloing, and juke-joint funk replete with banjo and saxophone that somehow captures the atmosphere of a long gone era without sounding like a mere tribute. It helps that all nine players in the ensemble contribute exuberant solos as well as loose and crafty ensemble playing, strutting their stuff like a Dixieland band while coming together like a big swing group. From the light and carefree cover of "Pennies from Heaven" to the deconstructed crawl of "Darling Nikki," the band capture the vibe and sound of Kansas City 1933 while retaining the snap and polish of New York 2006.
Steve Bernstein's music might not be monuments for future generations of critics to fawn over, but that's really, really Okay. I haven't listened to either of Radiohead's past two albums, because I just don't have the patience for that much artsy-fartsy seriousness from what is basically rock and roll music, the same genre that gave us "Louie, Louie" and The Bloodhound Gang. Steve Bernstein and the Millennial Territory Orchestra throw a hell of a party; what else do you need?