Steven Bernstein, an accomplished trumpeter, composer, arranger and bandleader, was set to head off to Europe recently for shows with the sensational New Orleans pianist Henry Butler and their group, the Hot 9. They were booked for the Nice Jazz Festival, in France; and they played the North Sea Jazz Festival, in the Port of Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Fortunately, before he flew to Europe, Bernstein took some time to talk. The phone conversation, from his home in Nyack, N.Y., ranged over a variety of topics, including his Aug. 6 appearance with Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee, a rollicking brass band, at the Dakota Jazz Club.
Bernstein, 52, spent most of his youth in Berkeley, Calif., then moved to the Big Apple at the age of 17. He soon became a fixture in the downtown Manhattan music scene, performing with John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards; with saxophonist Paul Shapiro in a group called Foreign Legion; and with Sex Mob, which covers pop songs, including themes from James Bond movies, and is still performing and recording. (The latter group’s rhythm section, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, played behind jazz guitarist Bill Frisell at the Dakota last week.)
Bernstein, who plays both trumpet and slide trumpet, also has recorded four albums featuring his idiosyncratic take on Jewish liturgical music for John Zorn’s Tzadik label. The first record in the “Diaspora” series was Diaspora Soul, released in 1999.
He is also the leader of the Millennial Territory Orchestra, a group of top-flight players, which performed in 2008 at the Walker Art Center. The first MTO album features covers of tunes by The Beatles, Prince (“Darling Nikki”), the Grateful Dead, etc. I really like the group’s album, MTO Plays Sly, which covers the songs of funk star Sly Stone, with the help of guest artists, including vocalists Sandra St. Victor, Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), Martha Wainwright and Shilpa Ray.
And Bernstein has had a long musical association with drummer Billy Martin, of the hugely popular jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood. Martin’s group, Wicked Knee, released a seven-song EP in 2011, and a complete album, Heels Over Head (Amulet Records), in 2013.
Wicked Knee is a “pocket brass band,” in Bernstein’s words. The lineup also includes trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, who also plays with MTO and Butler-Bernstein and the Hot 9; and Marcus Rojas on tuba. Bernstein and Rojas were in the avant-jazz trio Spanish Fly, in the ’90s.
“What’s not to love about a band with a tuba, trombone, trumpet and drummer?” Bernstein asks rhetorically.
Regarding Billy Martin, the drummer and Wicked Knee bandleader, Bernstein recalls his long association with Medeski, Martin and Wood.
“Not only did I tour with them, I would just go see them sometimes because I like the music,” he says. “I’ve seen, especially back in the days when there were thousands of people at the gigs, they’d be doing some spacey jam, and Billy would just flip the switch, and I’d see thousands of people all start to move. And it’s not like he plays hard — he just knows how to switch the magic switch, and he can make thousands of people all start moving together. He’s a real magician. Billy’s gift is completely — it’s magic. It’s one of those things that I don’t even know what it is, but I know what it is. And it’s a great band.”
Bernstein adds that with the brass band, “we’re actually creating every note from our bodies” — as opposed to musicians playing reed instruments, pianos and guitars. “But brass instruments, every note comes right from deep, deep, deep down. That’s the only way notes are going to come out; and I think people really feel that.”
In the way of further Bernstein biography, he continues on as a member of the Midnight Ramble Band, which was formed by the late Levon Helm, drummer for The Band, Bob Dylan’s old backing band. The group still performs on occasion at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, N.Y.
And when we discuss the “Diaspora” series on Tzadik — there’s also Diaspora Blues, Diaspora Hollywood and Diaspora Suite — he tells a story, with some musical accompaniment.
“Zorn had asked me for years to do a Jewish record,” he recalls. “And first I kind of balked at it. I just felt like, I’m a musician; I don’t want to be defined as a Jewish musician.”
He finally decided that he would record an album, and called up John Zorn to tell him the idea, which Zorn rejected. Bernstein came up with another idea, which also was rejected.
Bernstein was about to give up on doing an album of Jewish music. And then he had to brush up on some music for a Jewish wedding gig.
“When you play weddings, there’s no sheet music, everything’s by ear,” he says. “Let me get my trumpet here.”
Over the phone, Bernstein plays a standard version of the lively Jewish song “Chusen Kala Mazel Tov” (which is on his Diaspora Soul album).
“They always do that as part of the hora medley,” he remarks, after playing the melody.
“I’ve been listening to all of this New Orleans music, so I pick up the trumpet and just without thinking, I go,” and he plays a slow, bluesy version of the wedding tune.
“Oh man, ‘Chusen Kala Mazel Tov’ is the same thing as ‘St. James Infirmary [Blues],’” and Bernstein realized that the Jewish music had the “same harmonic progressions as New Orleans music. I could mix all this stuff up. I got all excited and came home and called Zorn. He said, ‘All right, I’m sending you a check. Make the record.’”
Wrapping up the very enjoyable conversation, I ask Bernstein if he’d like to add anything, if some major area has been missed.
“I have been associated with some of the iconic artists of the 20th century,” he replies. “I had a long association with Lou Reed, I worked on Robert Altman’s films, Woody Allen’s films.
Bernstein was the musical director for the band featured in Altman’s 1996 film Kansas City. “I wrote one arrangement for a Woody Allen film — but that counts.”
And he worked with the late legendary rocker Lou Reed, over a period of 10 years, “Lou would kiss me when I saw him,” says Bernstein. “I wrote arrangements for him, we were friends. … I understand that’s not Duke Ellington’s music. You have to love it for what it is.”
Bernstein quotes a friend’s comment that he has “no musical prejudices; and I think that is why I have been able to go into all these different worlds and play with all these different people. I’m very blessed to have grown up in an environment that made me open to experiencing everything and appreciating things for what they are. You know, I even love people from the Midwest.”
Steven Bernstein will perform with Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 6, at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant, 1010 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis. For tickets, call 612-332-1010, or go to: dakotacooks.com.
This article is republished with permission from The American Jewish World, where it was first published.