The Fellow Traveller: Steven Bernstein and MTO

Sly Stone

Sly Stone

In everyone’s musical journey there are fellow travellers; friends with whom you not only share music but who open doors to new artists and styles. I can name several–Ned, Brian, Peter, Ian—without whose contribution my understanding of the musical universe would be so much more narrow.


Tonight I’ll name one more fellow traveller, Phillip Walker. For more than a decade, as colleagues in several organisations and friends (when we are both in the country), Phillip has introduced me to a huge quantum of music especially jazz and music from South Africa, where he lived for many years.

At the moment his life has taken him back to Africa where he runs a large development program for an Australian NGO. He is still turning me on to wonderful sounds such as Steven Bernstein and the Millennial Territory Orchestra. 


Knowing nothing about Bernstein I’ll let the people at All About Jazz do the talking about this very good album.


The Sly Stone songbook is a solid gold thing, and it is strange that it is so rarely revisited. Then again, repertory tributes are generally paid to artists who have passed. Stone is still with us, although, it sometimes seems, only just: over the last few decades, he has been ravaged by “personal problems” which would likely have finished off any mere mortal. The man who promised the late 1960s/early 1970s counterculture that he wanted to take it higher, and whose pre-Family Stone band was simply called The Stoners, has himself gotten higher than most—and the subsequent crash and burns have not been pretty.

Step forward downtown NYC trumpeter Steven Bernstein and his little big band, the Millennial Territory Orchestra. As a pre-teen growing up in Berkeley, California at the time of Stone’s post-Woodstock ascent, Bernstein was aware of the Family Stone, but too young to be a card-carrying fan. He plugged in later. When, in 2009, he was asked to come up with a strand for NYC’s River To River Festival, which was that year celebrating Woodstock’s 40th anniversary, he suggested a Sly & The Family Stone tribute.

MTO Plays Sly grew out of that project. Mercifully, it is no “recalibration,” “reimagining” or “reconstruction.” It is a celebration, a loving jubilance, pure and simple. The nine-piece MTO romps through some of Stone’s best-loved songs, sticking closely to the spirit of the originals, augmented by guests including Parliament-Funkadelic organist Bernie Worrell (67 years old and the hero of the hour), Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, remix wizard Bill Laswell and a mix ‘n’ match lineup of vocalists comprising Martha Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, Shilpa Ray, Dean Bowman and Sandra St. Victor.


Most of the material is taken from the Family Stone’s first-flush albums: Life (Epic, 1968), Stand! (Epic, 1969), There’s A Riot Goin’ On (Epic, 1971) and Fresh (Epic, 1973). If a few of the best tunes are missing—including “Dance To The Music” (1968) and “I Want To Take You Higher” (1969)—that is inevitable. Stone produced too many to include all on one album.

Eight of the eleven main tracks (there are additionally a couple of brief interludes) have vocals, five of them taken by either Sandra St. Victor or Dean Bowman, gospel-drenched soul singers who perfectly inhabit the material in front of them: “Stand,” “M’Lady,” “Skin I’m In,” “Fun” and “Time.” Antony Hegarty‘s reading of “Family Affair” is hyper-vulnerable; Martha Wainwright’s “Que Sera, Sera” by turns fatalistic and defiant; both singers make the songs their own without losing touch with the original recordings. Shilpa Ray‘s blues/punk “Everyday People” is at times a little mannered, but it cooks, too.

Of the instrumental tracks, Bill Laswell’s primal-funky “mix translation” of “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” is the most radically inclined, but it, too, is in the spirit. Worrell, a longtime Laswell collaborator, wails centerstage, and the groove is heightened by a Vernon Reid guitar riff as insistent as any tenor guitar ostinato in Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti‘s bands. The track fades dubwise.

The two “Sly Notions” interludes, both featuring MTO‘s violinist Charles Burnham and banjoist Matt Munisteri, inject a little bluegrass into the proceedings: a style and ethnicity mash-up of which the Family Stone would surely have approved.


Thank you Sly, Steven and especially, Phillip!

MTO Plays Sly

Track Listing:

01 Stand (Featuring Sandra St. Victor, Bernie Worrell & Vernon Reid)

02 Family Affair (Featuring Antony Hegarty)

03 Sly Notions

04 Que Sera, Sera (Featuring Martha Wainwright)

05 M’Lady (Featuring Dean Bowman)

06 You Can Make It If You Try

07 Everyday People (Featuring Shilpa Ray)

08 Bernie Interlude (Featuring Bernie Worrell)

09 Skin I’m In (Featuring Sandra St. Victor)

10 Sly Notions 2: Fun (Featuring Dean Bowman)

11 Time (Featuring Dean Bowman & Vernon Reid)

12 Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa (Bill Laswell remix)

13 Life





2 thoughts on “The Fellow Traveller: Steven Bernstein and MTO

  1. Pingback: The Fellow Traveller: Steven Bernstein and MTO | Chewbone

  2. Phillip

    Nate mate, you are much too kind particularly given the learning you have provided me, and not just sub-continental music. Steven Bernstein is a fascinating musician/arranger and here is his Wikipedia entry, followed by a You Tube link to MTO doing ‘Stand’ live.

    Steven Bernstein (born October 8, 1961) is a trumpeter, slide trumpeter, arranger/composer and bandleader from New York City. He is best known for his work in The Lounge Lizards, Sex Mob, Spanish Fly and the Millennial Territory Orchestra. Sex Mob’s 2006 CD Sexotica was nominated for a Grammy.
    A ubiquitous figure in New York’s downtown jazz scene, Steven Bernstein has been the musical director for the Kansas City Band (from Robert Altman’s film Kansas City), Jim Thirlwell’s Steroid Maximus and Hal Wilner’s Leonard Cohen, Doc Pomus and Bill Withers projects. Bernstein has released four albums under his own name on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records: Diaspora Soul, Diaspora Blues, Diaspora Hollywood and Diaspora Suite. He has performed with jazz giants including Roswell Rudd, Sam Rivers, Don Byron and Medeski, Martin & Wood, as well as artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Lou Reed, Linda Ronstadt, Digable Planets, Sting and Courtney Love. Since 2004 Bernstein has been a member of Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble band, playing in Helm’s Woodstock home, as well as touring with the band. As an arranger Bernstein has written for Bill Frisell, Rufus Wainright, Marianne Faithfull and Elton John among others. He has composed for dance, theatre, film and television, and with composer John Lurie, arranged the scores to many feature films, including Get Shorty.


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