Last September we introduced the first of four Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra’s (MT0) projects, Tinctures in Time. We now have the second installment, Good Time Music, featuring the captivating vocals of Catherine Russell, not only one of today’s best vocalists but an expert musicologist in this music, mostly rooted in New Orleans. Both Russell and trumpeter Bernstein share history with the late Levon Helm and Bernstein arranged Russell’s album Sentimental Streak, which was recorded at Helm’s barn in Woodstock. MTO guitarist Mark Munisteri is the leader of Russell’s backing band. We could cite even more lineages such as the fact that Russell’s dad, Luis, was Louis Armstrong’s musical director. Yet, above all, as stated in interviews from Bernstein, there are few if any vocalists other than Russell who could front a large brass band like this one and record the songs live in one or two takes.
Before we proceed though, a bit on the MTO – Bernstein has long known the nine members of his ensemble for decades in some cases such as pianist Arturo O’Farrill, drummer Ben Perowsky, and saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum. He’s known all the other members for at least twenty-five years, meeting many after moving to NYC in 1979 from Berkeley and immersing himself in the downtown jazz scene. The remaining players of the current lineup are the widely known violinist Charles Burnham, fellow Levon Helm Band member, baritone saxophonist Erik Lawrence, the aforementioned Mark Munisteri, bassist Ben Allison, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, and tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Doug Wieselman.
Those of us fortunate to witness Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band were treated to the elaborate New Orleans style brass arrangements that colored so many of The Band songs in the repertoire. By Bernstein’s admission, this music is mostly a continuation of that. Said another way, it’s the Ray Charles Horns, the Duke Ellington horns, and the chemistry of players that collectively have the experience of playing this kind of music in various settings. Unlike Tinctures in Time, which was all newly composed music, these should all have a familiar feel whether it be Percy Mayfield’s opening “River’s Invitation,” Allen Toussaint’s “Yes, We Can” through Professor Longhair’s “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.” Nonetheless, chances are you’ve never heard drumming like Perowsky’s or fiddle work like Burnham’s in the Toussaint tune.
As you might expect, Bernstein, like Russell, is no stranger to New Orleans music, having worked extensively with the late pianist Henry Butler (hint: the next installment), but directly with Toussaint and Dr. John as well. He even attests to learning to play trumpet in the style of Louis Armstrong. So, it’s not surprising to hear Bernstein and Russell channeling Bessie Smith in “Good Ol’ Wagon.” in an arrangement featuring clarinets no less, which eventually morphs into a stratospheric horn climax. Savoring that feeling from the ‘20s Russell and the MTO stick with Bessie Smith, playfully rendering “Careless Love.” Fans of Russell’s solo work know well that these old blues tunes are the heart of her repertoire, and they demand a unique type of phrasing that few singers can master. Erik Lawrence imbues the tune with a gutty baritone solo while Russell proves blues shouter above the joyous cacophony of the horns.
The final two tunes move us into that peak New Orleans period of the ‘60s behind Earl King’s “Come On,” better known to most as “Baby, Let the Good Times Roll,” and Professor Longhair’s “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.” Where one is used to hearing guitar or piano, the horns play all those parts and more, threatening to blow off the roof. That’s the essence of this session – a roof-raising party delivered by, to use Robbie Robertson’s words, – “some of the best horn men in New York” and sung by the incomparable Russell. Tap your foot, raise a glass, and start 2022 in style!