New York trumpeter Steven Bernstein was music director of John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, co-leader of the trio Spanish Fly, and served as arranger and leader of the Kansas City Band (from the Robert Altman film and Verve All-Stars Tour). Bernstein then began leading his own groups and recordings, as with his gritty cover band, Sexmob, in which Bernstein played slide trumpet (!). Bernstein had wide-ranging musical experience, even arranging the Academy Award-nominated score for the film Get Shorty. He also served as musical director for Hal Willner projects devoted to the music of Leonard Cohen, Doc Pomus, and Bill Withers. He has collaborated, played, recorded, and performed with artists as disparate as Tricky, Foetus, Aretha Franklin, Mel Tormé, They Might Be Giants, Bootsy Collins, Don Byron, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Roswell Rudd, Sam Rivers, Lou Reed, Linda Ronstadt, Sting, and Courtney Love. As an arranger, Bernstein has written charts for Bill Frisell, Rufus Wainright, Marianne Faithfull, and Elton John, to name a few. Impressive and wide-ranging though this may be, it's not as satisfying as Bernstein's own visionary music.
He has recorded a number of projects for John Zorn's Tzadik imprint, in his Radical Jewish Culture Series, beginning with 1999's Diaspora Soul, followed by 2002's Diaspora Blues and 2004's Diaspora Hollywood. In 2004, Bernstein became a member of Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble band, playing in both the house and touring versions. He also founded the Millennial Territory Orchestra,with a stellar compendium of musicians from across the country, and many guests. Their debut album, MTO, Vol. 1, was released in 2006, and We Are MTO in 2008; Bernstein also released his brilliant Diaspora Suite on Tzadik that year. In 2009, he collaborated with Marcus Rojas and Kresten Osgood to release Tattoos & Mushrooms on the ILK Recordings imprint, and played on no less than ten other recordings, including sets by Faithfull and Helm. In 2010, he played a key role in composer/guitarist's Todd Clouser's band for the album A Love Electric, and was a featured soloist on Fight Like a Bull's All Is Gladness in the Kingdom on Clean Feed.
Bernstein showed no signs of letting up in 2011. He played on David Bromberg's comeback album Use Me, Lee "Scratch" Perry's Rise Again, and Helm's live Ramble at the Ryman. Still he found time to make his own music -- even if it was a variation on someone else's. Despite the side work, Bernstein once again found time for one of his own projects. He and MTO released MTO Plays Sly on Royal Potato Family in September. The nine-piece orchestra -- augmented by guest appearances from Antony Hegarty, Bernie Worrell, Dean Bowman, Sandra St. Victor, Bill Laswell, Martha Wainwright, Vernon Reid, and Shilpa Ray -- performed a Bernstein-arranged suite from the Sly Stone catalog and included several original interludes.
After an eight-year break, Sexmob reunited. Delivering a program of Nino Rota's themes, Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Fellini was released in 2013. As an arranger he wrote the charts for the Mario Pavone Sextet's Deez to Blues, also issued that year.
Back in 1998, he had met New Orleans pianist Henry Butler while leading the band in Robert Altman's film Kansas City. The pair re-teamed in 2011 to perform early 20th century blues and jazz at an N.Y.C. blues festival. In 2012, they played an extended run at the Jazz Standard, where producer Joshua Feigenbaum caught their act and convinced them to record. He produced Viper's Drag, co-billed with an all-star backing back called the Hot 9. The set was issued to kick off the revitalized Impulse! label in July of 2014. ~ Joslyn Lane & Thom Jurek