This album, the second installment in the four album set called Community Music from Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, has its roots all over America. From Levon Helms’ Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, N.Y., to the streets and clubs of New Orleans, to the R&B, blues and jazz of Ray Charles, and of course the Big Apple jazz community, it’s all there in the pot. Even if it wasn’t called Good Time Music you’d recognize it as good time music. As with most of Bernstein’s projects, the strongest element is New Orleans.
Well, actually the strongest element here is Catherine Russell’s amazing voice. Because this time out MTO is joined by Ms. Russell, and she’s a big part of the good time here.
This album has a longer and more interesting back story than most. It converges from two directions. One is from Woodstock, which is where Levon Helm headquartered his lengthy series of shows in his waning years. Bernstein and Russell met in 2008 when Russell did a show at one of Helm’s Midnight Rambles, and later she recorded her acclaimed album Sentimental Streak there, with Bernstein playing and arranging horns. Russell also cut the Harry Nilsson tune “Poli High” with Bernstein’s band Sexmob in 2009, followed by a few New York shows with the MTO. She became part of the community.
That word community is the other angle of this album’s origin story. Around 2019 as many of his musical influences were passing away, Bernstein decided it was time to document his own legacy. The composer, arranger, band leader and trumpet player won a Shifting Foundation grant to do just that – record as many of his unrecorded and unperformed arrangements as possible. In January 2020 he gathered the musicians – mostly the MTO with a few additions – and rehearsed and recorded four albums worth of material in four days.
Russell is just amazing here. (Well, I guess she’s amazing everywhere – she sang backup for the likes of Steely Dan, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Madonna and Al Green before stepping out on her own.) I don’t listen to much vocal jazz, and records like this make me acknowledge the error of my ways. She just inhabits these songs and brings every one of them alive. The highlights to me are Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can,” which is the second track; and the last two tracks, Earl King’s “Come On” (also known as “Let The Good Times Roll”), and Professor Longhair’s “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.”
So, yeah, I actually love “Yes We Can” no matter who does it, it’s just such a great, uplifting song. Bernstein’s arrangement is, as always, what really makes it here. I love those low sounds, and as in many of his charts the baritone sax (Erik Lawrence) and trombone (Curtis Fowlkes) are prominent; the whole horn section just wails, though. And drummer Ben Perowsky is absolutely on fire.
You probably are as familiar with “Yes We Can” as I am, and you probably also know “Come On” from one of the many, many versions that have been recorded: Dr. John, Freddie King, Anson Funderburgh, James Booker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Miller Band, Jimi Hendrix, and most recently Flo Rida. Well, they’ve all got nothing on this smoldering cover by Bernstein, MTO, and Cat Russell. Bassist Ben Allison and Perowsky provide the deep groove, Matt Munisteri some hot guitar licks, and Russell the slinky vocals of course.
And it’s just perfect that they wrap things up with the Prof’s “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.” Guest John Medeski’s organ is the perfect touch here, while the prominent clarinet licks from Doug Wieselman place this one squarely in New Orleans. Smack in the middle there’s a lengthy second-line style improvised section that’s among the best on the album.
And those are just my favorites. There are three more, including the slow burning opener, Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation”; the traditional-ish stroll of “Loveless Love,” credited to W.C. Handy; and Bessie Smith’s smoldering, hilarious put-down blues, “You’ve Been A Good Old Wagon.” Russell has a ton of fun with this one and just nails it. What a hoot!
I haven’t ever heard anything by Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra that I don’t love. Good Time Music keeps the streak alive. (I reviewed Community Music Vol. 1 – Tinctures in Time in 2021.
(Royal Potato Family, 2022)