Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra – We Are MTO (2008)

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Photobucketby S. Victor Aaron

Trumpeter and arranger Steven Bernstein might be the hardest working man in music these days. Just these last few years he has garnered a Grammy nomination (for Sexotica by his band Sex Mob) and a Annie nomination for scoring a children’s TV series; released an album under John Zorn’s Tzadik label; scored some Laurel & Hardy flicks; arranged on albums by Rufus Wainright, Marianne Faithfull, Linda Thompson and Darlene Love; played as member in Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble band; served as musical director for Hal Willner’s show, and much more.

So what does a busy guy like Bernstein do for fun and relaxation? He leads a ten-piece jazz orchestra, of course!

Formed just five years ago, Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, or MTO, honed their craft in late night jam sessions at New York’s fabled Tonic nightclub. Bernstein’s crew consists of members of New York’s underground jazz scene, including bassist Ben Allison and saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum. There’s two other sax players, a trombonist, a violinist, bassist, guitarist and drummer. Bernstein himself plays trumpet and slide trumpet.

This ensemble is no one’s main gig, just a labor of love. That’s why in spite of all the serious projects Bernstein is involved with, he proclaims MTO as possibly “the fullest expression of my musical personality.” This band revives the spirit of Chicago and Harlem jazz of the 1920’s and early 1930’s. That was before ensembles got so large and improvision largely charted out of existence when big band became the dominant force in jazz. That jaunty, juking jazz of Prohibition serves as a guiding force, but MTO won’t be hemmed in by it, either, if the opportunity to throw in other ingredients adds to the fun. Think of MTO as a pre-swing oriented jam band.

No where is the mash-up of old-timey jazz with more contemporary styles more blatant than on the declarative opener, “We are MTO.” This Bernstein original is succinctly described in the CD notes as “Don Redman meets Funkadelic at Count Basie’s summer home by the lake.” This calling card of sorts has got a backwoods beat merrily married to the horns of the Jazz Age.

From there, MTO covers vintage tunes, mostly from the twenties and thirties. “In A Corner” is a spritely and extremely obscure Cecil Scott tune Scott had recorded in ’29. Redman’s own “Paducah” is a glorious, full band freak-out in the beginning and end with some hot trumpet licks by Bernstein in-between. Count Basie’s “Dickies Dream” is given the gypsy swing treatment with guitarist Matt Munisteri being joined on guitar by guest plectrist Doug Wamble. “Dickie’s” is a real rave where it seems everyone gets a chance to solo.

The idea of covering “All You Need Is Love” may appear left-field at first blush, but when you think about it, it’s really an inspired and logical choice. After all, the Beatles used an orchestra of roughly the same configuration to back them on their version; MTO merely makes the orchestration drive the song, not ornament it. The icing on the cake is that it’s bookmarked by a frenetic avant garde intro and a rewritten, funkier coda.

Just as it was back in the day, a few songs features vocals. One is the popular C&W ditty interpreted by the likes of Gene Autry, Ray Charles and Merle Haggard, “It Makes No Difference Now.” With the help of the band’s bluesy backing, guitarist Matt Munisteri’s charming reading turns it into the kind of song that Louis Armstrong should have covered. “Viper Song” features both Munisteri and Wamble trading off sassy vocals on Fats Waller’s ode to smoking weed.

We Are MTO released just this past October 21. The late, great record producer Joel Dorn once remarked after hearing MTO that “I never thought I’d hear horns played like this again.” If you want to hear horns played like this again, you just need to spin this CD.

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