Listening and reacting with Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra
Steven Bernstein’s latest creative gift, Tinctures in Time, is a powerful expression of friendship and music-making. Inspired by life and loss, Tinctures is the first of a four-record project of community music and offers a sense of melodic otherworldliness. Backed by the Millennial Territory Orchestra, Tinctures’ influences include Jazz, funk, African traditions and Minimalism—all rolled up into what Bernstein calls cannabis music.
Heads Lifestyle: You have played with some great musicians both in the Jazz world and beyond. How do you incorporate their influences and pay respect to their legacies through the music you create?
Steven Bernstein: Before Hal Willner died, we were talking about all our heroes that were no longer here. Hal said to me, “It’s up to us to make our art with the same intent as our heroes now.” So I keep that spirit in everything I do, whether it’s playing, practicing, writing, cooking, leading bands and rehearsals, all of it. I carry this all with me now.
HL: You have a long history with the musicians you’ve chosen to surround yourself with. Can you tell us about this?
SB: I’ve been very lucky to work both with musicians whose work I admire, as well as musicians I refer to as my “heroes.” When I started playing, hanging and listening in the Lower East Side in the early ‘80s, Hal Willner and John Lurie were making music that inspired me, and I noticed that neither of them worked with trumpeters that much. I ended up working closely with both of them. In high school, some of my favourite musicians/music were Sam Rivers, Roswell Rudd, Bernie Worrell on the Parliament records, Howard Johnson’s music with Taj Mahal, and Allen Toussaint’s arrangements for The Band’s Rock of Ages. I ended up making a lot of music with all of these musicians, spending hours on the road and on stage, and having them as friends and mentors.
HL: Can you explain the concept of trust and what it means to Jazz musicians?
SB: In Jazz, we are always listening and reacting. Clark Terry once said to me, “Jazz is about digging yourself into a hole, and figuring how the hell you’re going to get out!” The moments when we collectively find the way out—that’s the magic of Jazz!
HL: What does “Community Music” refer to?
SB: It refers to the human process of these four records. The band has been together 20 years. I met Peter Apfelbaum in the 6th grade. Ben Perowsky was still in high school when I met him. Ben Allison was in college when we met. I turned 22 on the road with Doug Wieselman. I replaced Curtis Fowlkes in the Lounge Lizards. Erik Lawrence and I spent eight years with Levon Helm and three years with Little Feat. We’ve been through so much life and loss and music and midnight shows and international festivals and Thanksgivings and memorial services. I also have history with our guests. I met Catherine Russell through Levon. She recorded with Sexmob 12 years ago. Medeski and I go back to the first MMW record and the first Sexmob record. (Well we actually go back before that to the Lounge Lizards.) I was in a band with Arturo in the early ‘80s. But it’s not just the band—Andy Taub has recorded and mixed every MTO record for 15 years. I met Kevin Calabro—who runs Royal Potato Family and came up with the idea of releasing four records—when he was working for Joel Dorn 20 plus years ago. Joel was Hal Willner’s mentor. I met Gene Paul, who mastered the records, through Hal Willner. He was a house engineer at Atlantic Records recording the albums that Joel Dorn produced. And Victor Melamed, who created the series of album covers, is part of our extended family. He lives in Moscow and has created incredible artwork for many of our records. The whole project is the meeting of a large community doing what they do, and we do it for the community of music lovers. They are an essential part of this community
Steven Bernstein (center with trumpet) and his band have been together for 20 years including some members with whom he goes all the way back to 6th grade. Photo: Paul LaRaia
HL: Can you explain the process of transforming personal trauma into creativity?
SB: Everything inspires everything. We are the sum of our experiences. And maybe even the experiences we haven’t experienced yet—if we’re lucky. We are who we are. There is no process for me other than the process of living a creative life, staying in the moment, and trying to be nice to people.
HL: What's the story behind the album title Tinctures in Time?
SB: My dad is a doctor and he always uses the phrase tincture of time. It’s a medical expression and can refer to healing a broken rib or a broken heart. Sometimes there’s no western medicine to remedy the situation, hence a tincture of time. I love wordplay. This just came to me—another “gift.”
HL: What will your musical legacy be?
SB: No need for a legacy; just make music while I’m here. So far that plan has brought me to some wild water!
HL: Jazz and cannabis have been intertwined since the early days. According to legend, Louis Armstong wouldn’t allow anyone on a recording session unless they shared his passion for getting high while playing music. Does your concept of “Community Music” include a similar unwritten code?
SB: No, we don’t need codes. Just be here now!
HL: It’s said that you lay out a nice spread of food for your musicians to enjoy before recording sessions. Do these spreads include a selection of cannabis?
SB: My feeling is that a good recording session should have whatever people need to make the process as fruitful and fulfilling and easy as possible, and there are certainly some cannabis smokers in the ensemble, therefore…
HL: We love your philosophy that music can be a transformative experience without resorting to psychedelic sound effects and layers of reverb in order to achieve a trance like state. How do you create this vibe?
SB: It's really about connecting with the audience. You can’t make the audience go there. It’s a collective endeavour; everyone has to be relaxed and comfortable and ready to travel. Some of my earliest shows were The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Cecil Taylor. I was a teenager and those events were very transformative. I realized that music had that power. And then in NYC in the early ‘80s—P Funk, King Sunny Ade, Franco TPOK Jazz (African band with three electric guitars), Don Cherry, Pandit Pran Nath, Phillip Glass (loud as hell!) at the Ritz! So I felt firsthand how beautiful this type of musical experience can be.
We are the sum of our experiences. And maybe even the experiences we haven’t experienced yet—if we’re lucky. Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff
HL: You curated an incredible six-part “Jazz for Cannabis Lovers” playlist for us. Can you explain your selection process?
SB: I know that many people have no relationship to Jazz. I’ve heard people say, “Well, I don’t really like Jazz.” And I wonder, Do they not like Count Basie, Cannonball Adderley, Gil Evans, Louis Armstrong, Herbie Hancock, or Bill Frisell? What is it that they don’t like? They haven’t been exposed to enough music to know what they “don’t like.” I mean everybody likes my shows. So I made a semi-chronological playlist broken into sections of great Jazz music that I think will appeal to cannabis lovers. If you don’t dig a song, skip to the next and keep going until you find something that grooves you and moves you.
HL: Can you describe an ideal day in the life of Steven Bernstein?
SB: Coffee. Practice. Have a puff. Some delicious homemade food. Write some music or record some music (and get paid). Walk the dog. Have dinner with my wife. Play some music at a sweet concert/gig (and get paid). Get home safe.
I hope people aren’t offended by my desire to get paid, but without income I can buy no food, and then I can’t eat, which means I won’t have the strength to play trumpet!
HL: How were you first introduced to music? Why did you choose the trumpet?
SB: My folks always had good records around the house—Ellington, Basie, the Beatles, Big Brother and Holding Company. They took me to see Ellington in third grade! Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the fifth grade. I started trumpet in fourth grade. I was obsessed with Louis Armstrong. When I moved back to Berkeley, there was a jazz program in the fifth grade run by Phil Hardymon, Dick Whittington and Herb Wong. At the end of sixth grade, I joined Peter Apfelbaum’s band, and played in his various groups all through high school.
HL: Who is your greatest inspiration?
SB: I have so many—all my teachers, all the arrangers, all the brass players, all the bands I’ve heard, and the bands I haven’t heard, all my amazing meals in Italy, Ken Kesey and Wavy Gravy and all the psychedelic warriors, all the oceans and trees, and the buildings and beautiful cities, and, of course, Sun Ra and Pythagoras.
Listen on Spotify
Master trumpeter, Steven Bernstein has created a semi-chronological playlist divided into sections of great Jazz music that he feels will appeal to cannabis lovers. If you don’t dig a song, skip to the next and keep going until you find something that grooves you and moves you.
Main Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff