Trumpeter gives cantorial classics fusion makeover
Ten years ago, this would not have been: Steven Bernstein, a jazz trumpeter whose most popular bands include the Sex Mob and a Kansas City-style big band, leading a group playing jazz-inflected cantorial tunes. But at a recent Sunday night gig at the Jazz Standard in New York, Bernstein was doing just that.
The show debuted Bernstein’s new album, “Diaspora Suite,” recently released on the Tzadik label, and by far his most original. It is Bernstein’s fourth album in the Diaspora series, which began in 1999 with the debut of the popular “Diaspora Soul” album. But unlike the previous three albums, where Bernstein took standard Jewish songs like “Rumania, Rumania” and “V’Shamru” and infused them with jazz rhythms, the latest album features entirely original Jewish melodies.
They are inspired by cantorial songs, but none are exact copies, and all are combined with the psychedelic sounds of 1970s jazz-fusion bands. Think Mahavishnu Orchestra laced with a Koussevitsky hymn.
“I never felt like I wanted to define myself as a Jewish musician,” Bernstein said, sitting at the bar of the Jazz Standard a few hours before his show. “My identity hadn’t been defined yet.”
Bernstein, 46, was referring to his early years as a musician in New York in the 1980s. He moved from Berkeley to attend Columbia University but dropped out after two years, spending most of his time playing with jazz groups downtown. He first gravitated toward Haitian and Latin bands but eventually became a member of a prominent punk rock and jazz-fusion band, Lounge Lizards, in 1990.
When Bernstein founded Sex Mob five years later, all these influences coalesced: a bit of Caribbean clave, the electronic instrumentation of fusion bands, even the hard-rocking sounds of new bands like Nirvana.
So when John Zorn, the pioneering musician and founder of the Tzadik label, approached Bernstein in the mid-’90s about doing a Jewish album, Bernstein hedged. The only Jewish songs he knew were from his bar mitzvah, and, he recounted, “I was really just a sideman.”
Sex Mob, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2006, was still in its infancy. Bernstein made a living playing in the ensembles of greats — Lou Reed, Sam Rivers, Levon Helm. “Basically I worked for other people,” he said.
Which made Zorn’s proposition seem like a mixed blessing — it offered Bernstein the opportunity to make his first album as a bandleader, but it might pigeonhole him as a “Jewish” musician. So he sat on it for a while, choosing first to produce a record with Sex Mob in 1998.
Meanwhile, his research for Robert Altman’s film, “Kansas City” (1996), for which Bernstein composed the score, hovered over this whole period. In addition to Sex Mob, he founded the Millennial Territory Orchestra in 1999, which was inspired by the marching bands that originated in New Orleans and moved into the Midwest territories.
“I was reading all these books about New Orleans [and] I was really thinking about all that history,” Bernstein said.
All along, Zorn kept asking about the Jewish album. And then it hit him at a bar mitzvah. “Chuzen Kalah Mazel Tov,” which he was playing for the bar mitzvah gig, had the same basic melody as “St. James Infirmary,” a jazz standard.
“I just started playing it like it was a New Orleans tune,” he said.
Not long after, he called Zorn and told him about the odd event. The Diaspora project was born.
The first album, “Diaspora Soul,” was released in 1999 and continued in the Bernstein tradition of fusing a smorgasbord of genres into a cohesive whole. “Diaspora Soul” mainly mixes cantorial, Jewish wedding and holiday tunes with the tropes of New Orleans marching bands, the Afro-Cuban cha-cha and bata rhythms and a few psychedelic riffs.
The album was a hit. National Public Radio, Down Beat and a host of other media outlets gave it enthusiastic reviews. To date, it has sold more than 10,000 copies, an impressive amount for an independent record, and for Bernstein, second only to a Sex Mob album of James Bond covers, he said.
After the surprise success, Bernstein went to work on a second Diaspora album, producing “Diaspora Blues” in 2002, which took more Jewish songs and put them to the blues. Two years later, Bernstein produced “Diaspora Hollywood,” taking inspiration from Jewish composers in 1950s Hollywood and combining their aesthetic with traditional Jewish songs.
Now comes “Diaspora Suite,” an entirely new venture. Zorn said that he wanted Bernstein to produce all original work, which meant no covers.
Instead, Bernstein drew from the Jewish cantorial melodies he has studied closely — those of Koussevitzky and Rosenblatt, mainly — plus the sounds of the Jewish Diaspora he’s absorbed while playing abroad in Spain, Moscow and even Ireland.
“I played in a bombed-out synagogue … in Cork, Ireland, in a pub,” Bernstein recalled.