Millennial Territory Orchestra, vol. 1 – Steven Bernstein
Millennial Territory Orchestra, vol. 1 – Steven Bernstein, Sunnyside 1158
Sexotica – Sex Mob, Thirsty Ear 57171-2
When the folks in charge finally get around to updating the list of jazz subgenres, “eclectic jazz,” which started in the '80s and still thrives today, will have an entry. Considering that the names Joel Dorn, Hal Wilner and John Zorn appear in his biography, it’s not surprising that Steven Bernstein fits into this camp. He’s less combative than Zorn and less manic than Wilner (Bernstein tends to pick one style per CD rather than switching on every track, as Wilner did on his '80s tributes to Monk, Weill and Disney), but he’s similarly committed to investigating bizarre musical corners.
Bernstein states two aims with the Millennial Territory Orchestra: to examine early big band music and to point out common threads in different eras of 20th century pop, from the '20s to the '80s. He’s picked a capable set of companions for his quest — violinist Charlie Burnham, for instance, is a veteran of James Blood Ulmer’s country/blues/jazz Odyssey aggregation, and tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum is an equally well-known explorer. Sometimes Bernstein sticks with the familiar (“Pennies From Heaven”), but “Cry Baby Cry,” giving John Lennon’s British acid-folk a dose of the blues, is an example of just how many different references he can tie into one cut. On the other hand, “Ripple” points out the frustrating side of eclectic jazz — you’ll be surprised when you recognize the melody, but you might find yourself longing for Garcia’s understated wisdom rather than the heavy-handed testifyin’ which the MTO offers instead.
Guitarist/vocalist Doug Wamble, in a one-track cameo, offers up some deep country blues licks on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” as well as taking a decent crack at the thankless job of standing in for Stevie Wonder. A few instrumental solos get a bit more boppy than the old-school guys would have been able to manage, and Bernstein sneaks a Don Cherry interlude into “Happy Hour Blues,” but otherwise his group is faithful to its job. His liner notes focus on the reactions of audience members of varied generations at their regular NYC gigs, and one gets the sense that this CD is a souvenir from a band best experienced live.
Sexotica, on the other hand, pushes the studio to the limit. An homage to Martin Denny, the CD includes no covers, but stays true to the work of this eccentric figure in easy listening music. The opener, “Pygmy Suite,” with its distant shouting, is the most grabbing song here, but all are filled with decadent brass, loopy bass ostinati and layers of wood percussion.
However, it’s the contributions from production/remixing team Goodandevil which do the most to make this disc memorable. Anyone who’s heard a few remix CDs will be familiar with the breakbeats, abrupt cutoffs and speech fragments which everyone uses but which many toss around without constructing anything coherent. Goodandevil, by contrast, understand the compositions and are crucial to this music’s impact. Sexotica is among the best headphone discs of the year.
As with all members of the “eclectic” camp, Bernstein has many projects and may take a while to pick up the threads suggested by these discs. For now, though, both MTO, vol. 1 and Sexotica entertain, prompt a few thoughts and point back to several past masters.