CD reviews: Bernstein’s MTO and Cass McCombs | AspenTimes.com

CD reviews: Bernstein’s MTO and Cass McCombs

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Following are reviews of recently released CDs.

produced by Bernstein, Andy Taub and Jay Weissman (Royal Potato Family)Trumpeter and arranger Steven Bernstein is a solid member of the New York downtown scene, a loose collection of musicians that is always looking forward, to the avant-garde edges. So what is Bernstein doing paying tribute to Sly Stone, whose days as a funk icon are 40 years behind us?Bernstein, like Stone, came out of the San Francisco area; Bernstein, before he became a self-confessed jazz snob, had Sly & the Family Stone’s as the soundtrack for his childhood years – and this being the Berkeley of the late ’60s, the memory probably was unusually vivid. When, in 1979, Bernstein, now a full jazz snob, bought a Sly Stone greatest hits album, not only did the memories come over him like a wave, but he also saw connections between Stone’s music and the downtown scene. Of course: Stone, too, was an innovator, and all genuinely innovative music has at least something in common.Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra is, in its normal mode, an ambitious and big ensemble, a nine-piece outfit of horns and strings that puts a 21st-century spin on material from 1920s Harlem, the Beatles and Prince. For “MTO Plays Sly,” the MTO goes even bigger, adding into the mix funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, avant-garde guitarist Vernon Reid, electric bassist Bill Laswell, and singers including Antony Hegarty, from Antony & the Johnsons, and Martha Wainwright.What comes out is fresh, and grand in scope. “You Can Make It If You Try” is forward-looking instrumental funk with a touch of futuristic New Orleans. Hegarty’s unique voice is at the center of a silky, sensuous take on “Family Affair,” while “M’Lady” gets both Dean Bowman’s raw r&b shout and the MTO’s sophisticated angle on funk. Singer Shilpa Ray, of Brooklyn’s Shilpa Ray & the Happy Hookers, gets the honor of handling “Everyday People,” and she tears into it with a ferocity that splits the difference between dream and nightmare. The album closes with a bluegrassy take on “Life” – an appropriate conclusion to an album that makes a lot more sense than it probably should.

produced by CM and Ariel Rechtshaid (Domino Recording Company)Most every bit of writing about American singer-songwriter Cass McCombs references his nomadic ways. He reportedly splits time between the Pacific Northwest, Baltimore and England; has lived in northern California and New York City; recorded in Chicago, Southern California. “Humor Risk” was recorded in “various home studios in California, Chicago and New Jersey,” according to the liner notes.That sense of wandering is reflected in the music. The pace ranges from impossibly slow – the drummer on “To Every Man His Chimera” has time to nap in between the beats – to poppy and chugging on “Mystery Mail,” which would have fit nicely on ’80s New Wave radio. McCombs’ vocal presence can be whispy and subtle, or right out front. The overall tone moves from meditative to aggressive.So “Humor Risk” is not a bigger-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experience. But those parts, taken individually, can be captivating. The best parts are those where McCombs is at his dreamiest: “The Living Word” is gorgeous, low-key pop; the album-closing “Mariah” is slow and intoxicating.stewart@aspentimes.com


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