If we all find ourselves, a couple months from now, eating meatballs and sipping PBR at the local VFW hall, we'll have Steven Bernstein to thank for it. The Sex Mob frontman and slide-trumpet-wielding man-about-town has made his career on two things: putting a punk-rock boot in mainstream jazz's ass, and arranging some of the tastiest charts in neo-big band music. In an interview earlier this year, he told me it wasn't just the avant/free-jazz heads that get off on his stuff; he gets old-timers telling him they haven't heard shit like his since Count Basie. With the nine-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra, Bernstein rewards traditionalists for their good faith while reminding hipsters how good it feels to swing.
Bernstein's band-leading duties clearly outweigh his trumpet playing on this one, but this is not to say it leaves much to be desired. Each track is a lush romp of violin, guitar, banjo, brass, and a full fleet of saxophones. The adventurous spirit of Bernstein's trumpet-driven stuff is traded here for got-nowhere-to-go-never-mind-shit-to-do composure. Indeed, this is the indelible mark of the blues. The deep blues. Most progressive jazzmen spurn it, and art-rockers (like, say, The Black Keys) brandish it like a weapon, but MTO sit back on it like a chair --something natural and supportive.
Nostalgic? Perhaps, but it makes for one of the most mood-consistent records in recent memory. There's deep lamentation in the soprano-sax led "Paducah," but the result is sweet and languishing. One thing time has forgotten is how jaunty and humorous big band music can be. While it never crosses into manic terrain, most of the album skiffles along with a haughty swagger. "Dikie's Dream" is insistent without feeling urgent, and "In a Corner" is executed with the kind of jest that carried Cab Calloway through his entire career. While the title track is by far the funkiest on the album (and the only track Bernstein penned), highlights come, oddly enough, on down-tempo pop tunes. A cover of the Beatles' "All You Need is Love" carries the clarinet nicely, while "Viper Song" salutes weed, peppermint candy, and the pleasure of solos played on acoustic string instruments.
If anything, this one reminds us that, sometimes, the most radical thing an artist can do is play it straight. There's a time for nose-thumbing, but with the downtown scene in diaspora after Tonic closed, jazz is gonna have to happen wherever it happens. Shit, I'll Lindy-Hop to Bernstein at the VFW if this is what it sounds like.