Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, Tonic, NYC- 1/11
NYC ROLL-TOP: Casual Thursdays
Beginning gigs casually has always been part of veteran bandleader Steven Bernstein’s trickbag, but his set with Millennial Territory Orchestra at Tonic on January 11th was a particularly fine specimen of the form. The crowd, including most of the band (billed, as usual, only as "his troops"), mingled and drank while Bernstein taught a new arrangement to the assembling frontline. The horns, including usual suspects Peter Apfelbaum (on saxophone) and Doug Wieselman (on clarinet), struck up "Sittin’ On Top of the World," more in league with luxurious laze of the Mississippi Sheiks than the hopped-up triumph of the Grateful Dead.
Gradually, the band showed up, revealing the lineup for the set ("sweet, Ben Perowsky’s on drums tonight!"), and swung into the groove, now bolstered by Charlie Burnham’s rich violin. The band’s treatment of the old-time staple, Bernstein’s slide trumpet mimicking the melody, was perfectly representative of their vibe: music that transcends latter-day hype cycles and pop culture cynicism. Formally, it’s because Bernstein’s music is completely, recognizably jazz. Properly, it’s because Bernstein’s music is an impeccable mashing of relaxed and world class. "Sittin’ On Top of the World" triggered a half-dozen smaller entertainments, like Bernstein listening and laughing along with Apfelbaum’s solo, a continuing conversation since the pair’s high school days in Berkeley.
The set progressed at the proper pace. There were plenty of solos from Bernstein, whose tone more often recalls Ray Charles’ voice, both uplifting and lonesome, than it does other trumpet players. There was a free jam that congealed effortlessly into a loping noir texture that turned, in turn, into a Nawlins breakdown. There were microscopic exchanges, like Burnham extending the last note of one song over the first chords of the next, Bernstein cocking an eyebrow and cuing Burnham to thunder on, bowing as frantically as "the Orange Blossom Special," before the band fell into John Lennon’s "Cry Baby Cry," colored by Matt Munisteri’s ringing guitar.
Most everything in the set felt telepathic and instantly familiar: the Millennial Territory Orchestra at the absolute top of their game. Where Bernstein’s music is nostalgic, it’s never nostalgia — the sheer vitality of the player sees to that. And if it is respectful of the past, it is never reverent of it, giving sets permission to mutate into atonality, fusion excursions (mostly fueled by Burnham’s wah-wah violin; wah-wah sounding way cool on an acoustic instrument), Bernstein narratives (including a tale of almost getting kicked off of a New Year’s broadcast on National Public Radio), and guest performances (which on this evening included some lovely ukulele numbers). If it is jazz to make the proverbial you wrap your proverbial troubles in proverbial dreams, then the subsequent floating away is completely literal. The Millennial Territory Orchestra ended as casually as they began.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com