Territory orchestras were the small, regional jazz bands of the Midwest and Southwest in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s -- the scene that gave us Count Basie and many other greats. When trumpeter/slide trumpeter Bernstein (music director of John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, co-leader of slide trumpet/electric guitar/tuba trio Spanish Fly, and genre-spanning/changing quartet Sex Mob) was musical advisor on Robert Altman's Kansas City, set in the world of the 1930s big bands, he immersed himself in the music of that time and place. Four years later he formed the Millennial Territory Orchestra, which mixed and matched that style/material and free jazz in anything-can-happen, off-the-cuff shows at Lower East Side club Tonic.
Fans have been wishing for an MTO album ever since, and finally one appears (its title seemingly promising more to come, which is good news). Compared to the Tonic shows, it's a little tame, with no free improvisation except on one track. That aspect of the band -- and its spur-of-the-moment vibe, with Bernstein verbally constructing new arrangements mid-song -- may be missed by old fans. (The latter could be too in-the-moment to work on record, I suppose.) And the nine-piece band's immensely broad repertoire can't be adequately reflected in a mere nine tracks (what, no Tiny Parham?) What's heard here, though, is still both fun and thought-provoking.
The transgenred songs will catch some listeners' eyes/ears first: Prince's "Darling Nikki" is especially endearing in its sexy playfulness, King Curtis's "Soul Serenade" sounds absolutely appropriate in its new garb and makes a great album-closer, and the Grateful Dead's "Ripple" is the most downhome thanks to the exuberant, always-inspired fiddling of Charlie Burnham. (The Beatles' "Cry Baby Cry" doesn't work for me, but I never thought it was much of a song to begin with.) The guest vocalist/guitarist on "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," Doug Wamble, plays and drawls it like neither the Peter Frampton cover nor the Stevie Wonder original, more like a bluesman stretching into another genre.
The other vocal comes from Matt Munisteri on "Pennies from Heaven," which is played in its native tongue, so to speak. Other vintage pieces are the bawdy "Boy in the Boat" (the only track here that's diminished by the absence of its lyrics), the Dickie Wells obscurity "Happy Hour Blues" (which boasts the disc's only outburst of "outside" playing), and a hard-swinging version of the Bennie Moten/Basie fave "Toby" that finds Munisteri channeling his inner Charlie Christian (or T-Bone Walker) on an uptempo guitar solo.
When I listen to this disc, I recognize its roots in an old style, but it still sounds timeless to me. And, it's worth noting, I hear neither parody nor irony -- no cheap laughs or grotesqueries here, just good music. Here's hoping we get MTO Volume 2 soon.- Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who recently recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.