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RVAjazzfest: Steven Bernstein

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The realization of similarities between Jewish music and New Orleans music was the catalyst for the landmark record.
Steven Bernstein will perform at RVAjazzfest with Fight the Big Bull on February 21, 2009, 8pm, at The Camel. Boots of Leather and Glows in the Dark open. Tickets are $10, all ages welcome.


By Dean Christesen

Trumpeter and arranger Steven Bernstein considers himself to be in a fortunate position. He is one of the few people in New York City that is able to make a living being a musician and, despite working extremely hard to be able to do so, still manages to be on the forefront of creative music. A man who keeps busy in order to support himself and his family, Bernstein is constantly involved with numerous projects working with other creative musicians. Everything on his plate deserves and receives equal attention and focus, and even a recap of the previous week makes one wonder how he does it.


Gigs and recording sessions with Lou Reed, Levon Helm, DJ Spooky, and The Swell Season, as well as film music and working on future endeavors with his current groups Sex Mob (with a new record to be released and gigs to be booked) and Millennial Territory Orchestra (including a Sly Stone tribute in the works), line his calendar. But this week, his schedule is cleared to spend time in Richmond recording and performing with Fight the Big Bull, including a headlining appearance at RVAjazzfest. With Bernstein, the group will spend several days at Minimum Wage Studios recording new material composed by Bernstein and Fight the Big Bull's Matt White. “This is a totally new experience," says Bernstein. “I've never had the chance to rehearse my arrangements, or to spend more than a day or two in the studio. I'm really excited about having a chance to work with these guys and work on the arrangements and see what happens."

Bernstein's musical voice is as unique in his compositional style as it is in his performance on the trumpet. And with his slide trumpet, sometimes called a soprano trombone, his playing is all the more inimitable. He bought the instrument at a music store in 1976, but had not thought about practicing it and developing his playing with it until the early 90s, when trumpeter Dave Douglas made a comment after seeing Bernstein's group Spanish Fly in Austria. The slide trumpet plays naturally in only one or two keys, and with Douglas' encouragement to practice playing it, Bernstein developed the skill to play it as a primary instrument, making way for the concept behind his group Sex Mob.

The first record to be cataloged under Bernstein's name came when John Zorn approached him to do something for the latter's relatively young Tzadik label, which is devoted to adventurous music with a Jewish identity. Bernstein was reluctant to take the offer. “At that point I hadn't made a record under my own name, and I was thinking, 'I don't want to get known as a Jewish musician, I just want to get known as a musician.' No one even knew me... I had played in New York for 15 years by that point, but still I didn't really have a reputation."

But the opportunity to release an album under his name was too great to pass up, so he began pitching concepts to the label's chief. “I called Zorn and said, 'Hey, I have this idea.' He said, 'I don't like that idea.' Then I called him up with another idea. 'I don't like that idea.' So I'd think about it for a while and came up with another idea. 'I don't like that idea.'"

Frustrated and just about out of ideas, the perfect concept came to Bernstein on a gig at a Jewish wedding, when he began playing a Jewish song in an unlikely, yet seemingly natural, style. “I hadn't played the tune in a while and I just kind of automatically played it in a New Orleans style because I had been doing all of this listening and reading of New Orleans marching music." The concept of performing Jewish music with modern rhythm was a new one that Bernstein would take to his Tzadik recordings, resulting in Diaspora Soul and the ensuing Diaspora project albums.

The realization of similarities between Jewish music and New Orleans music was the catalyst for the landmark record. “It kind of opened a door that had never been opened before. But once that door had been opened it was like, 'Oh, I see. You can do this.'"

Bernstein continues, “You can take the Jewish music and put any rhythm underneath it. Zorn was doing his thing with this kind of free jazz stuff. But no one was really doing Jewish music with a modern rhythm that we had grown up with." This could be because of a misconception most people have about Jewish music: “Everyone thinks Jewish music is klezmer music, but klezmer is just a style of Jewish music. Referring to Jewish music and klezmer music as the same thing is like saying, 'Jazz...you mean ragtime?' Klezmer is one distinct part of Jewish music that happened in a period and people were just playing in that rhythm of that era. I took the music and put it in the rhythm of our era."

This first record for Tzadik contains re-workings of “hits, tunes that every Jewish person knows." The following three dig deeper into the repertoire of Jewish music.

Creative music, Bernstein says, is all he does. “I don't do Broadway shows, and I don't play in people's big bands. People call me to do what I do." His musical mind has been molded by everything he's ever heard, namely beginning with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie: the three main musicians to whom he credits grounding everything he does, running up to the present day. After those three come The Band, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Earth Wind & Fire, Otis Redding, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Albert Ayler, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, and salsa music, to name a few.

New York City has been Bernstein's home long enough for him to recall a time when making a “decent middle-class living" as a musician was possible. “In New York at one point you could play a gig and make some money. Right now there's a lot of people working but no one's really making any money except for a few people." He cites Lester Bowie as a role model for teaching him to eschew the starving artist approach. “I'm a super highly skilled professional," he says. “You're supposed to be paid for your skills."

And Bernstein certainly earns his living. “I do so many projects because I'm raising a family playing music," he says. “So I need to work 7 or 8 days a week, preferably 9 days a week, but I usually settle for 8 days a week."

He finds a way to make it possible to write and perform his own music, even if it alone will not pay the bills. “That's what keeps my name out there and my creative juices going," he says. “I'm one of the few people who gets to do that."

Bernstein's relationship with White began with a curious White emailing the trumpeter with questions on music arranging. Emails turned into phone calls, which eventually led to White traveling to New York for a lesson at Bernstein's home. Bernstein looked over Fight the Big Bull scores and gave advice on great arrangers' works to listen to, including “obscure arranger records from the 50s that I'm probably the only one in the world who listens to anymore," and other examples of arranging brilliance like Count Basie, Quincy Jones, and The Band's Rock of Ages. They also discussed the “concept of when arrangers were actually working every day in New York City and writing arrangements every night." He says, “Sometimes I think those and the ones from L.A. in the same period are the best arrangers in the world."

Similar to White's history with avant-garde saxophonist Ken Vandermark, which developed from mentor-mentee into partners in musical crime, White and Bernstein have the mutual respect for each other's music that's necessary to be musical collaborators. In the liner notes for Fight the Big Bull's album Dying Will Be Easy, Bernstein writes, “It's Matt's unique sense of orchestration and structure that makes this music so unique and special."

For a week, Bernstein gets to enjoy making music without worrying about the logistics and business of it. “Matt's spearheading all the business," he says. “All I have to do is show up, make some music, and have some fun."


RVAjazzfest is made possible by the generous support of Richmond Jazz Society, Inc., RVA Magazine, Francis J. Balint & Associates, and Urban Views Weekly.


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This story appears courtesy of RVAjazz.
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