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Interview with Steven Bernstein (english version)



Steven Bernstein by Ziga Kortinik
An Interview with Steven Bernstein / The Millenial Territory Orchestra
(Interview by Nicolas Ragonneau, for Paris DJs - summer 2011)

Trumpeter Steven Bernstein often presents himself as "one of the hardest working men in showbusiness". Beyond the ironical expression alluding to James Brown, nothing is more true. He's created a fantastic piece of music with its Diaspora quadrilogy, now a modern classic. He leads Sex Mob and The Millennial Territory Orchestra (MTO). But all this is just the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg is huge as a planet. He's arranged, composed, produced or played with an incredible myriad of musicians in every genre possible, from Carla Bley to Elton John, from Levon Helm to John Lurie, from Medeski, Martin & Wood to Shivaree, from Antony and The Johnsons to Lee Scratch Perry...

With The Millennial Territory Orchestra, a spectacular nonet, Bernstein recreates a kind of big band that was very popular in the US in the 20s and the 30s, territory orchestras crossing the state to play in bars and dancehalls. The MTO hits the stage in Paris on September 11th (Jazz à la Villette Festival) to present their latest creation, a superb tribute to Sly And The Family Stone, followed, a few weeks later, by the release of the album MTO plays Sly (Royal Potato Family).

Steven Bernstein by Ziga Kortinik

01. You've been involved in hundreds of projects for more than twenty years and you don't seem to slow down. Where do you find the energy to achieve all this?
This is what I do... just like people go to work 5 days a week... except I work 7 days a week... everyday I practice my horns, and most days (and nights) I write music... It's pretty easy given the alternative. it's important to get enough rest, eat well, and make sure your caffeine intake is correct. Coffee is only for the morning... then espresso! Also, I work with my friends, so my work environment is relatively stress free...

02. Now you release "MTO plays Sly". You've done Sly covers with Sex Mob in the past. So why the big band formula for this tribute, instead of Sex Mob?
This was conceived as a Millennial Territory Orchestra project, the producer who asked me to do the original concert (Jay Weismann at 'River to River' fest) is a big fan of MTO, and thought that using the MTO version of "Darling Nikki" was a good starting point, so I took it from there. The first concert was part of a woodstock 40th anniversary tribute (By The Way l also played at the 40th anniversary Woodstock concert with Levon Helm).

Steven Bernstein MTO by Greg Aiello

03. Why is Sly's music special to you?
I think I'll send CD's liner notes... that explains my long history with, and love of Sly's music. the short version is that I grew up in Berkeley in the 60's and this music was always there. I bought Slys greatest its when I was 17, already a jazzed and playing jazz gigs, and the music really opened my ears, hem I got to NewYork and the lower east side in 1979... the early 80's "punk funk scene" was in full bloom... I bought «Fresh» and "There's a Riot Goin On"and it made total sense in that environment. Sly has continued to inspire me all this time... the Family Stone was the perfect combination of individuality and precision..they made a 7 piece band sound huge... orchestrationally, socially, musically. Sly was ahead of it all... his music is the perfect blend of science and mystery.

04. What is your favourite Sly album?
Impossible to answer... different every day I guess... I love em ALL!

05. Sly releases his first record for years just a few weeks before yours. Have you listened to this album and if so, what is your opinion?
Have not heard it. Interesting that it has a lot of the same songs as MTO Plays Sly. I know he has completed other cds of new music and never put them out.

06. Tell me about the colour of "MTO plays Sly" and the instruments you chose for the record. For instance, banjo and violin?
Well the idea was to combine MTO , which is based on the early territory bands and New Orleans Orchestras....(brass, violin, clarinet, 2 saxes) with Hammond B 3...kind of like a ancient futurist version of Basie andJimmy McGriff, but using Bernie Worrell and his special magic. The banjo was a last minute decision, just told the guitar to bring it... being playing lots of Americana festivals with Levon Helm's band, and that sound was just in my head, decided I'd see what would happen...its some of my favorite moments on the CD.

07. How did you cast the singers?
It came pretty naturally... Dean and Sandra were my 1st choice as the main singers, they are friends and have a strong connection to Sly and to Sly's roots which is church music.... I thought Antony would be perfect for Family Affair, and Martha for Que Sera. I had this all in my head at the 1st meeting about the show. Shilpa Ray was brought to me by Jay Weismann. She really brings something different.

08. Bringing Antony Hegarty is a bright idea. His singing on Family Affair is amazing.
I agree. Have you heard the arrangement I made for him on "If It be Your Will" on the Leonard Cohen tribute? we have a mutual admiration... I plan to do more with Antony, he is an incredible artist.

Steven Bernstein MTO by Greg Aiello

09. You've played in Walter Thompson's orchestra. Do you use soundpainting on stage to conduct the MTO?
You can call it soundpainting, conduction... whatever. I've developed my own way of conducting the band that incorporates all these elements.

10. A word on your most recent band, The Wicked Knee with Billy Martin.
This is not my band, but I helped billy with the arrangements, were all excited about this project...a real 21st century pocket brass band, we've only played a few gigs, but the musics been incredible AND people were dancing!

11. One of my favourite records in your discography is Baby Loves Jazz. Was it a commercial success?
Not as much as it could have been, we recorded it independently, Verve put it out, but wasn't quite sure how to get into the kids market.... I think a great kids CD with Sharon Jones and John Medeski should be selling forever!!!!!

12. With Sex Mob you did a cover of la Macarena and other popular hits. Who's the next chosen one? Lady Gaga or Katy Perry? Or maybe Miley Cyrus?
Did a little Lady Gaga recently.

13. What can we expect from the unpredictable Steven Bernstein in a near future?
I want to record my new project MTO Plays the Early Blues with Henry Butler, Dean and Sandra (WC Handy, Jelly Roll, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller and Basie), also want to make a record with guitars only, and it would be great to make a Levon Helm instrumental CD... we recorded Levon Helm band with Mavis Staples live in Woodstock (I wrote 4 horn arrangements). I still want to make Sexmob plays Nino Rota.... just need some time (and $)... Ars Nova in Philly has a great Spanish Fly set from a few years back they are threatening to release as part of an archival series.Also did a recent Sexmob concert "1971". Might be nice to do a series like that, all music from one year only. Been making nice collaborations in Italy as well (Brass Bang with Paulo Fresu, Gianluca Petrella, and Marcus Rojas, quartet with Riccardo Fassi, playing Bitches Brew with Funky Football). For my 50th birthday well have a special Sexmob concert with Roswell Rudd and Medeski in upstate NY...

black & white photo by Ziga Kortinik, color photos by Greg Aiello

Links :
Exclusive mix part 1 | part 2
Interview : in English or in French
New album out sept 27th : MTO plays Sly
Live in Paris sept 11th : Sly Stone tribute show
Steven Bernstein's Millenial Territory Orchestra : official | flickr | myspace | parisdjs | wikipedia | youtube
Nicolas Ragonneau

Nicolas Ragonneau

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