One Track Mind: Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra, "Stand" (2011)

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source: stevenbernstein.net

Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra has worked well as a creative outlet for its slide trumpet-playing leader, who seems to come up with some off-the-wall ideas for a jazz orchestra. We loved his last MTO album, We Are MTO (2008), for its zany, fun mash-up of Midwest 20’s jazz with funk, avant garde, swing and even pop.

His new MTO venture, MTO PLays Sly (out September 27 by The Royal Potato Family) isn’t as ambitious, but a lot more narrowly focused. As the title suggests, this is a celebration of the music of Sly Stone. Stone’s songs, which often had horn arrangements in them, really is a logical topic for getting the horn orchestra treatment, and after listening to what the band’s been able to handle in the past, this kind of music is predictably a piece of cake for the Orchestra, as they offer their own original reads on songs like “Family Affair, “You Can Make It If You Try,” and “Skin I’m In.”

With such band members as Erik Lawrence, Peter Apfelbaum and Ben Allison, MTO can already be considered an all-star band, but Bernstein added further to the star power by bringing in P-Funk organ master Bernie Worrell, Living Colour guitar shredder Vernon Reid, vocalist Martha Wainwright and funk bassist/producer Bill Laswell, among others. That, along with the mostly-Sly penned tunes, makes Plays Sly a different animal from its freewheeling predecessor. And that’s quite evident from the get-go, with a rousing rendition of the Sly And the Family Stone classic hit, “Stand.”

A microcosm of the approach taken for much of the album, “Stand” is part instrumental, part vocal. Worrell jams right along with the big band at the outset, and his presence here and most of the tracks transforms MTO, bringing it forward to the time of James Brown and the Family Stone (and let’s face it, as a key member of Parliament-Funkadelic, no organist is a better choice to work with funked-up horns than Bernie). Some ensemble horn blasts announce the arrival of Family Stand vocalist Sandra St. Victor, who uses her powerful, soulful voice to give Sly’s uplifting lyrics a convincing reading. The spacious groove of the main part transitions into that tight groove that underpins one of Sly’s best riffs. Reid’s acid rock guitar cuts loose, like throwing gasoline on that burning, four-on-the-floor vamp, cresting with the horns to bring the whole thing to a tumultuous end.

Much of the genius of Steven Bernstein with his Millennial Territory Orchestra is his ability to leverage the genius of others. This stimulating rendition of Sly Stone’s classic single helped along by having the right guest performers participate is a good example of that.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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