Steven Bernstein - Biography
Steven Bernstein has indulged in a career with so much depth, breadth, and wildly far-sighted ambition that it approaches the absurd. It’s hard to — it’s impossible to — imagine a trumpeter that gallops around the cultural landscape like Bernstein. It’s just not the sexy instrument today that it was back in the days of Kind of Blue. But in Bernstein’s hands it’s as lovely as ever, and more versatile than even Miles could have imagined. Bernstein performs, composes and arranges for an array of names that simply strains the far outer limits of credulity. Seriously: Extra points for anyone who can name another artist that has worked with John Zorn, Sting, Jim Thirwell, and Sir Elton John. (Granted, it wasn’t at the same time, but that’s an amusing ensemble to consider, isn’t it?) He presents a remarkable case for the notion of the musician as a pan-cultural ambassador, as he operates fluidly through the realms of Downtown avant-garde shronk, Hollywood soundtrack spectacle, mainstream pop orchestrations, and big-name jazz improvisations. And throughout it all, Bernstein tempers his careening virtuosity with wry humor, mediates his radio-friendly gloss with experimental gusto, and brazenly adheres to his wildly left-field origins while receiving nominations for Grammy awards. Anyone capable of coaxing inventiveness out of Linda Ronstadt while composing the soundtrack for Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty deserves some admiration, if not a round of serious and outright fawning.
Bernstein got his start in the Downtown scene of the early 1980s. Back before the Lower East Side was an upscale amusement park for well-financed partiers, it hosted an impossibly fertile batch of creativity, and a brief highlight was the post-jazz, no-wave, bop-and-shred genius of Bernstein’s Kamikaze Ground Crew and the eponymous Kamikaze Ground Crew LP (Busmeat Music, 1985). He then advanced to a variety of titles, including The Walter Thompson Big Band and Not For Rollo (Ottavo, 1986); Oran Juice Jones’ To Be Immoral (CBS Records, 1989); Karen Mantler’s My Cat Arnold (ECM, 1989) and Get the Flu (ECM, 1990); and Maggie's Dream’s Maggie's Dream (Capitol Records, 1990). He also appeared on projects by Rebo Flordigan, John Gallant, and the New York Composers Orchestra. Bernstein gained significant prominence and kudos as the 1990s progressed and he landed more major-label work with famed Ryuichi Sakamoto on Heart Beat (Virgin, 1991).
Soon, Bernstein’s sprawling resume started to feature numerous high-profile acts, interspersed with critical darlings and arch experimentalists. Here is a staggering list to consider: Digable Planets Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (Capitol Records, 1993); Medeski, Marin and Wood It's a Jungle in Here (Gramavision, 1993); They Might Be Giants John Henry (Elektra Entertainment, 1994); Foetus Gash (Columbia Records, 1995); The Lounge Lizards Queen of All Ears (Strange and Beautiful Music, 1998); DJ Logic Project Logic (Ropeadope Records, 1999); Cowboy Bebop Blue (Victor, 1999); Lou Reed Ecstasy (Reprise Records, 2000) and The Raven (Reprise Records, 2003); Crash Test Dummies I Don't Care That You Don't Mind (V2, 2001); and even the Jeff Buckley/Gary Lucas classic, Songs to No One (BMI, 2003). And frankly the albums just continue to pile up with a fascinating combination of drastic variety and commendably consistent quality. Bernstein has worked with Bill Frisell, Linda Ronstadt, Courtney Love and jazz titan Roswell Rudd, and for nearly a decade has been a crucial component of Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble band. All in all, Steven Bernstein makes a really credible case for the ability of a truly talented musician to transcend genre, while elevating the work of his collaborators in the process.