Opening with an instrumental workout that builds to the lyrical proclamations of “Stand” you witness immediately that MTO Plays Sly is not your ordinary cover album. The group is a who’s who of talented players and from the blazing guitar solo in the aforementioned “Stand” to the sultry slink of the “Skin I’m In” that is proved over and over.
Steve Bernstein has assembled a cracking crew with Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Doug Weiselman (clarinet and tenor saxophone), Peter Apfelbaum (tenor and soprano saxophone), Erik Lawrence (baritone and soprano saxophone), Matt Munisteri (guitar and banjo), Charles Burnham (violin), Ben Allison (acoustic bass) and Ben Perowsky (drums) acting as the foundation. The guests are just as impressive with Antony Hegarty, Bernie Worrell, Bill Laswell, Sandra St. Victor and Vernon Reid slamming his axe licks.
As for their takes on Sly’s classic tracks there are hits and weird misses. “Family Affair” is awash in wah-wah and slow blows of brass bringing style to a stellar track. “Que Sera, Sera” (a cover of a cover) with the fantastic Martha Wainwright on vocals is also powerful stuff if not revolutionary where as Shilpa Ray elevates “Everyday People” to holy levels with her vocals in front of hymnal ascending music phrasing.
The big band style intro that slips into free jazz vamping constitutes the groups cover of “You Can Make It If You Try” and is a unique take on the oft played tune. On the downside “M’lady” sounds a bit empty and strained, with vocals from Dean Bowman that are not his best. A few short originals also pop-up and while not painful, they are far from memorable although the banjo plucking is a nice touch.
A talented group interpreting a solid songbook is a mixture for success and Bernstein and crew achieve just that and add enough flourishes to make the tracks their own.