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Steve Bernstein

Hunter Center @ Mass MoCA
North Adams, MA
August 18, 2007

by J Hunter

This makes three summers in a row where jazz and film have intersected for me. The first time was at the Egg - when Dave Douglas did the second performance ever of music from Keystone (Greenleaf Music, 2005) - and the most recent episodes happened at MASS MoCA, the indescribable modern-art museum in the heart of the Berkshires: The Bill Frisell Trio added an additional twist to Buster Keaton (among other things) last summer; this time, Steve Bernstein brought his Millennial Territory Orchestra up north to play original soundtracks for three Laurel & Hardy silent films.

The three shorts come from the latter half of the '20s: Sugar Daddies first appeared in 1927, while Double Whoopee (featuring blonde bombshell Jean Harlow) and Wrong Again debuted in 1929. Bernstein told us about ordering an 8-mm copy of Whoopee from an ad in a comic book. His affection for the films - and for the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy - matched the enthusiasm Douglas showed for the work of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, the infamous subject of Keystone. But where Douglas' music took a decidedly modern tack, Bernstein's compositions were 180 degrees removed from the rampant deconstruction of his primary group Sex Mob; rather, the music fit right in with the era portrayed in the marvelously surreal silent films.

Bernstein's nine-piece unit looked like any other gaggle of Berkshires tourists as they walked on the Hunter Center stage. (The show was originally scheduled to play outdoors in Courtyard C, but a forecast low of 42 degrees convinced museum officials to move the proceedings inside.) One of the players was Todd Sickafoose, playing his first gig since succeeding Ben Allison in the MTO bass chair. If there was a dropoff in quality, it certainly wasn't noticeable; Sickafoose teamed with Kenny Wolleson (Frisell's drummer at last summer's show) and guitarist Matt Munisteri to infuse a faintly modern flavor to the music.

After introducing the musicians, Bernstein counted the MTO into a jumping overture that had equal amounts of Swing and Ragtime. (“Technically, it's not an overture,” Bernstein admitted, “but spiritually it's an overture!”) This was the only time Bernstein actually played, and he made the most of it. His clear, powerful trumpet easily evoked images of Louis Armstrong, and he muted his horn with a bowler hat in the manner made famous by King Oliver. Art Baron mimicked the muting technique when he wasn't making his trombone growl like a tiger. Charlie Burnham's violin overcame a persistent monitor buzz to wow us all, and Doug Wieselman's clarinet held its rightful place as the primary reed-based solo instrument of the era.

All three compositions were suite-like in nature, dovetailing with a plot point or an action as the MTO acted as scene-setter, narrator, and erstwhile sound-effects man. During a chaotic dance-hall scene in Sugar Daddies, the music remained faithful to the popular music of the time, but got more chaotic as Laurel & Hardy sought to save their rich employer from the murderous brother of a fortune-hunter. The MTO applied the same effect to the fight scene in Whoopee - a short that seems relatively benign nowadays, but had a moment with Harlow that must have shocked like hard-core porn in those days before the Hays Office. The films also show the development of Stan and Ollie as a comic team: They were separate characters thrown together in Daddies, but by Wrong Again, their chemistry (and their schtick) was firm as concrete.

I'm not sure what I like most about programs like this: Using jazz to expose new generations to the work of early comedic masters, or using film classics to introduce new generations to the wild spectrum of jazz. Either way, MASS MoCA has demonstrated a firm commitment to mixing media into increasingly tasty concoctions. If they take requests, I'd love to see them convince Douglas to revive Keystone for one more night. The appreciative audience MASS MoCA has developed would eat that up with a spoon.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.