A Swinging Territory Band at John Zorn’s New York Club

The Stone, unfortunately closing in February, is composer John Zorn’s outpost in the East Village. It’s at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C, and the only way you know it’s there is some peeling Letraset on the door.

Steven Bernstein

Steven Bernstein, conducting with his trumpet. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The club, which I visited for the first time July 2, reminds me of New York jazz in the 70s, when many artists—Sam Rivers, Joe Lee Wilson, Rashid Ali—had clubs that were about the music first. The Stone doesn’t even serve drinks or food. It’s a shame it’s not lasting, but it was packed 7/2/17 for a first-rate show by the Millennial Territory Orchestra, one of several bands (the Sexmob is maybe better known) that the composer/arranger/trumpeter Steven Bernstein either started or plays with regularly.

The phrase “territory band” has fallen out of favor, but in the old days it means a band—often with horns and vocalists—that traveled around a regional circuit (the Midwest, say). The MTO has a shifting cast of mostly New York-based first-call musicians, so its territory is the Tri-State area, though I believe it’s done some touring internationally.

The Millenial Territory Orchestra

The MTO has a shifting cast, but among the names I caught were Ben Allison, Curtis Fowlkes, Peter Apfelbaum, Ben Perowsky. Erik Lawrence, Doug Wieselman and Will Bernard. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The MTO got together in 1999, Bernstein told me. “I had just finished arranging music for Robert Altman’s film Kansas City, and part of the job was listening to a lot of the territory bands. That music stayed with me. It got left behind in the late 1920s when swing came in, and nobody was playing those songs or that style anymore. The first thing I did was an arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed and Delivered.’ I just heard that in my head, and it led to a lot of other music using that kind of instrumentation.”

 

The night at the Stone included two Ellington tunes, but also some originals, the Grateful Dead’s ‘Ripple,’ some Bessie Smith, and a song or two from a New York territory band. The Dead song is no aberration because the group embraces pop—MTO Plays Sly is the most recent album. Guest vocalists have included Antony Hegarty and Martha Wainwright.

Whatever the material, the sound is a delightful exploration of the possibilities and colors of the kind of little big band that once piled into a pair of Model A Fords and hit the road. Bernstein is a very physical conductor, swooping into the band to indicate the next soloist, to silence a passage or bring on a fanfare. He doesn’t (or didn’t) solo, instead using his signature slide trumpet and muted horn to change the pace.

The music was very visual, somewhat in the way Sun Ra was in front of the Arkestra, though without the costumes (there were a lot of hats, though). “We just want  to give people something to wrap their ears around,” Bernstein said.

On the night, Bernstein quipped that every time he plays a club, it closes. Let’s hope that pattern does not continue. What would be great is a permanent berth for the band, say on Monday nights. As you may recall, that was a tradition for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band at the Village Vanguard for decades.

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