Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra is a modern big band featuring lots of horns including Bernstein’s slide trumpet, trombone, up to three saxophones, violin, guitar, bass, drums and the occasional guest vocalist. This orchestra has carved out its niche doing 21st century, post-modern takes on music by other composers, from Count Basie to Lennon-McCartney to Prince. (Their arrangement of The Beatles “Cry Baby, Cry” with the fiery baritone saxophone of Eric Lawrence blazing away in the lead on MTO Vol. 1 is one of my favorite pieces of music of the past 20 years.)
But on Tinctures in Time the ensemble for the first time is releasing a whole album of Bernstein originals. Not only that, but it’s the first in a series of four releases under the rubric of “Community Music.” The remainder of the series to be released in coming months will be Good Time Music with singer Catherine Russell; Manifesto of Henry-isms, re-imaginings of Bernstein’s arrangements for the late New Orleans pianist Henry Butler & The Hot 9; and Popular Culture, more typical Millennial covers of songs by The Grateful Dead, Charles Mingus, The Beatles and more.
The genesis of the project may have been the passing of Henry Butler in 2018, followed the previous year by Bernstein’s mother. “I thought, ‘While I’m still on the planet, I need to start documenting my arrangements,” he says. With a grant from the Shifting Foundation he set out to do just that: document as many of his unrecorded and unperformed arrangements as possible. He gathered the MTO in January 2020 and in four days recorded the four albums’ worth. Rehearsing each piece, then laying down two takes, all live, no overdubs or auto-tuning, just the musicians reacting to each other in real time.
The eight tracks on Tinctures cohere so well, even though the ensemble is playing new material arranged in ways that are new to them. For instance, you’d be forgiven if you mistake Matt Munisteri’s slinky, distorted, bluesy electric guitar riff that opens the first track “Planet B” for a Los Lobos song. Because that’s precisely what Bernstein wanted. He had just returned from California, where he was working with Los Lobos, and David Hidalgo’s guitar was fresh in his mind.
The Millennial Territory Orchestra hasn’t previously featured the guitar so prominently, but it’s front and center here in several pieces including “Planet B,” where Munisteri has an incendiary solo. A couple of other outstanding tracks, “High Light” and “The Gift,” both lead off with guitar riffs. “High Light” is for me one of the highlights of Tinctures, with a lengthy trombone solo from Curtis Fowlkes and plenty of Charlie Burnham’s slinky wah-wah violin riffage. “The Gift” is a fantastic exercise in jazz counterpoint, each of several small sections of the ensemble playing syncopated short rhythmic riffs that are woven together like a basket or tapestry, until Lawrence’s bari sax softly comes underneath with an understated melodic swash. The gift is this community that makes such a musical tapestry together. Thus the series’ overarching title, “Community Music.”
There’s plenty more of that swell pedal-driven fiddle, like on “Planet B,” a slowly propulsive slab or horn-driven funk, and “Show Me Your Myth,” a sonic layered cake for Bernstein to lay his stately slide trumpet solo frosting atop. Bernstein doesn’t take many solo slots here, but this is one, subtle and controlled but passionate nonetheless.
The album’s centerpiece is “Angels,” a tender clarinet-led ballad that features an impassioned baritone solo from Lawrence. The song embodies the spirit of the whole album, with its feel of a late night session by a New Orleans second line, winding down after a long day on the street celebrating life and death and rebirth. Appropriately, “Angels” is reborn in the album’s coda track, where the tune is deconstructed and recontextualized, its woozy brass line giving a hearty “Amen” to the proceedings.
With Tinctures in Time Bernstein and Co. are taking the MTO’s sound to a whole new level, and this is just the first of four releases in this project. I can’t wait for the next to drop. You can sample and order this one at Bandcamp.
(Royal Potato Family, 2021)