An impactful presence on the New York scene over the past 30 years, trumpeter, composer, arranger and bandleader Steven Bernstein has immersed himself in such a wide array of music with his bands Sexmob, Millennial Territory Orchestra, Diaspora Soul, Universal Melody Brass Band, Spanish Fly, Blue Campfire and the Butler-Bernstein Hot 9 that he defies easy categorization. A former member of the Lounge Lizards and Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band, Bernstein has also composed works for film, theater and dance in addition to doing arrangements for a diverse list of artists ranging from Lou Reed to Lee “Scratch” Perry, Allen Toussaint, Marianne Faithfull, Linda Ronstadt, Rufus Wainwright, Darlene Love, Mario Pavone, Bill Frisell, John Lurie and the Kansas City All-Stars. His lengthy list of sideman credits includes recent recordings by Laurie Anderson (Heart of a Dog), Roswell Rudd (Trombone for Lovers), Mostly Other People Do The Killing (Loafer’s Hollow), Antony and the Johnsons (Turning) and Nels Cline (Lovers). He also continues to perform with Ray Anderson’s Pocket Brass Band, Omaha Diner and the Kamikaze Ground Crew.
Born on October 8, 1961 in Berkeley, California, Bernstein was hugely influenced by his Berkeley School band director, Phil Hardymon, who instilled in his students a sense of disciplined ensemble playing in the Count Basie tradition. In 6th grade, Bernstein formed what would become a lifelong friendship and musical partnership with saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, later the leader of the Hieroglyphics Ensemble. The two would attend performances in the Bay Area by Eddie Harris, Sam Rivers, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Roland Kirk and Woody Shaw at the Keystone Korner and a series of solo concerts by Leo Smith, Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake and Baikida Carroll as well as one eye-opening gig by the Art Ensemble of Chicago at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. Bernstein studied in Berkeley with former Woody Herman and Stan Kenton trumpeter John Coppola and after moving to New York in 1978 was mentored by lead trumpeter and ubiquitous session man Jimmie Maxwell, who had replaced Harry James in the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the early 1940s.
Bernstein joined John Lurie’s outfit the Lounge Lizards in 1990, appearing on the group’s 1991 release Live in Berlin on the Intuition label. Shortly before that, in 1988 he had formed the daring Spanish Fly trio with slide guitarist Dave Tronzo and tuba virtuoso Marcus Rojas. They began performing at the Knitting Factory and subsequently released 1994’s Rags to Britches on Knitting Factory Works and 1996’s Fly By Night on Accurate Records. By 1995, producer Hal Willner, a fan of Spanish Fly, enlisted Bernstein as arranger for the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s film Kansas City, which led to collaborations on other Willner projects, including arranging for Jazz Foundation of America benefit concerts (featuring singers Lou Reed, Bono, Darlene Love, Macy Gray, Elvis Costello and Dr. John) at the Apollo Theatre, tributes to Bill Withers, Doc Pomus and Leonard Cohen at Celebrate Brooklyn and arranging work on the soundtrack for the 2005 documentary film, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man.
In 1996, Bernstein formed Sexmob with saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. It remains his primary vehicle for exploring the slide trumpet, a rare instrument that he picked up in a Woodstock guitar shop back in 1977. Sexmob made its recording debut with 1998’s Din of Inequity and followed with 2000’s Solid Sender, 2001’s Sex Mob Does Bond, 2003’s Dime Grind Palace, 2006’s Sexotica, 2009’s Sex Mob Meets Medeski: Live in Willisau and 2013’s Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sex Mob Plays Fellini. In that span of recordings, the group put their patented Sexmob touch on an eclectic list of tunes by the likes of Leadbelly, John Barry, Hoagy Carmichael, Paul McCartney, Duke Ellington, Prince, Kurt Cobain, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Count Basie, Professor Longhair and Nino Rota. The group’s latest, in its 20th anniversary year, is Cultural Capital, the first Sexmob recording to feature all Bernstein original compositions.
From 1999 to 2008, Bernstein contributed four recordings to John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture series on his Tzadik label — 1999’s Diaspora Soul (featuring members of the Lounge Lizards and Sex Mob), 2002’s Diaspora Blues (featuring jazz legend Sam Rivers), 2004’s Diaspora Hollywood (inspired by the classic film composers and the West Coast cool jazz sound) and 2008’s Diaspora Suite (a kind of homecoming, recorded in San Francisco with some fellow Bay Area musicians he grew up with). Each project cleverly combined traditional cantorial songs and elements of jazz, blues and rock, with Bernstein serving as composer-arranger-producer and trumpeter/slide trumpeter.
Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra debuted with 2006’s MTO, Vol. 1, which featured large ensemble interpretations of tunes by Stevie Wonder (“Signed, Sealed, Delivered”), Prince (‘Darling Nikki”) and the Grateful Dead (“Ripple”) as well as Benny Moten (“Toby”) and Charlie Johnson & His Paradise Band (“The Boy in the Boat”). They followed with 2008’s We Are MTO, which included renditions of Fats Waller’s “Viper Song,” Don Redman’s “Paducah,” Count Basie’s “Dickie’s Dream” and the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” Their 2011 recording, MTO Plays Sly, was a tribute to the music of Sly & The Family Stone and featured the late P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell along with vocalists Dean Bowman, Sandra St. Victor, Antony Hegarty and Martha Wainwright.
In 2012, Bernstein combined forces with New Orleans piano master Henry Butler in the retro-flavored Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9. Their critically acclaimed 2014 Impulse! debut, Viper’s Drag, featured spirited renditions of Fats Waller’s title track along with tunes by Jelly Roll Morton and originals by Butler. In keeping with Bernstein’s wildly eclectic nature, the group ranges from King Oliver to Professor Longhair to Billy Preston in concert.
The restlessly creative Bernstein continues to juggle working several bands. During his recent residency at The Stone in NYC, he trotted out Sexmob, Millennial Territory Orchestra, Spanish Fly, Blue Campfire and Universal Melody Brass Band. Says the trumpeter-composer-arranger of his modus operandi in all of his wide-ranging musical situations: “I’m trying to present this way of looking at music where you can do a Jelly Roll piece, then a Leonard Cohen piece, then an Ornette Coleman piece, then a Duke piece and then a piece by The Band. And it’s not even about it being eclectic, it’s just music. Let’s play it. Here’s a chart, let’s go!”.