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Published: 2005/11/28
by Jesse Jarnow

Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, Tonic, NYC- 11/14

NYC ROLL-TOP: Same Time Next Week

If my Aunt Betsy were to have walked into Tonic last Monday (or even this coming Monday, or either of the middle two Mondays in December), she would have seen Steven Bernstein and his Millennial Territory Orchestra, and would have unequivocally recognized the music coming from the stage as jazz. Even at Tonic, the most vaunted of Manhattan's contemporary jazz rooms, that's a rare occurrence where, on most nights, saxophones and trumpets and trombones (often paired with turntables and laptops) are more often deployed for the purpose of noise. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, 'cause it's fun and occasionally good, but it's where jazz began to lose its consensus.)

And, like all good Jewish aunts, she probably would've recognized chief trumpeteer Bernstein's Catskills humor as he introduced himself to the bartender, ordered drinks for the band, passed out charts, and introduced the crowd to his new trombonist (not yet arrived) who he'd only met (and maybe even played with?) on a trip to Russia. Bernstein's veteran frontline cackled, while drummer Matt Leone (on loan from local country-folk favorites Ollabelle) looked on a bit apprehensively. Finally, the band swung into action. Bernstein himself lay back, watching the band groove, occasionally conducting, and taking stock of the ensemble's moving parts. Clarinetist Doug Wieselman's introduced a pastoral clarinet melody, which built in intensity. Finally, Bernstein made his entrance, sliding in atop Wieselman, and the Orchestra coalesced.

From there on, the performance was a mostly masterful mix of hot playing infused by a rowdily shambolic sense of fun. Indeed, Bernstein and his comrades — including (usually) usual suspects Wieselman, saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, violinist Charlie Burnham, and guitarist Matt Munesteri and a rotating rhythm section — comprise traditional, recognizable jazz's most vital stronghold in New York. It is jazz that neither aspires to the concert hall, nor the avant-garde. It's just jazz, fun to make, and fun to listen to. When he wasn't playing, Apfelbaum spent much of the show with his eyes closed, head lolled slightly back, listening to the music.

Even Bernstein sometimes chilled out and sipped his beer, though he was likely planning, too. On one such occurrence, he suddenly counted off, and the band responded nimbly, jumping headfirst into a nimble chart that could've been an Irving Berlin melody or the latest Christina Aguilera ballad (with Bernstein, you can never tell). Early in the set, he led the band through a thundering take on Prince's "Darling Nikki" that recalled not Minneapolis's favorite real frickin' short Jehovah's Witness sex symbol, but Bernstein's arrangements of John Barry's James Bond soundtracks for his other band, Sex Mob.

When Bernstein calls for familiar tunes, it's not part of any revolutionary program, it's because he loves the melodies, and — even more — the sounds of the instruments. Plucked string jams gave way to brooding full-band excursions, and — after one more jam (just for the hell of it) — Bernstein cued fusion-happy Burnham, who began the band's mournful reading of the Grateful Dead's "Ripple," which — in turn — transformed itself into The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love." The latter, perfectly suited to Wieselman's swaying clarinet, spiraled upwards, Munesteri and Wieselman's arpeggios dancing around one another, and Leone guided the outfit into a rockabilly crescendo.

New York is a better place when the Millennial Territory Orchestra have a residency. Same time next week.

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