In just about every case, it's the details that make the difference — ardent vocal delivery, rhythmic articulation, ensemble coloring. On the dirge-like, minor-key " 'E Spingule Francese," Kendall Eddy's bass sways under the percussion to nudge the march rhythm toward a slow dance, and Marenglen Skendo switches from concert flute to his Japanese wood shakuhachi for just the right earth tones. Meanwhile, the humor and exuberance of the vocals on "Tammuriata Nera" and " 'O Guarracino" might recall Mama Corleone's "Luna mezz'o mare," from The Godfather.
Marsico and Rossi have done their homework, so they know the material, but they're not slaves to stylistic correctness. (Both continue to play jazz, Marsico in a group she leads with Wennås.) "There are so many influences in this music anyway," says Rossi. "We want to keep it modern, and international."
Another long-time musical scholar who has no use for stylistic purity is Steven Bernstein, who brings his Millennial Territory Orchestra to George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival on August 9. Bernstein is a charter member of the '80s New York downtown scene that coalesced around the Knitting Factory, working in bands like John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, and later in the collaborative trio Spanish Fly and his quartet Sex Mob. Other projects have included working with everyone from Jim Thirwell of Foetus to director Robert Altman and the Band's Levon Helm.
The MTO are also a nonet, and, in their way, typical Bernstein. Their music zigzags from the pre-swing jazz of the 1928 McKinney's Cotton Pickers number "Paducah" to Fats Waller's "Viper Song" to the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" and Prince's "Darling Nikki." In the past, I've knocked some of Bernstein's more extreme burlesques (I just never got his band Sex Mob's James-Bond-scores-as-avant-jazz), but the MTO capture him at his best. Like Newpoli, he's informed but loose. "Cry Baby Cry" realizes the Lennon/McCartney tune as an ardent lament for baritone sax Erik Lawrence and melancholy ensemble harmonies. And Bernstein's liner note for the title track to last year's We Are MTO (Mowo!) is apt: "Don Redman meets Funkadelic at Count Basie's summer house."
Over the phone from New York, Bernstein tells me that MTO developed out of his work on Altman's 1996 Kansas City, where he worked as musical director under musical producer Hal Willner. Bernstein listened to hours of period music for the '30s-set film to make sure the performances in the film were accurate. From there, it was an easy jump from Count Basie to Prince.
"The idea being that those bands were playing popular music," he explains. "That's been my rap on everything from Sex Mob to Spanish Fly: every jazz musician from every era played popular songs of the day. But popular songs of the 1940s were 'All the Things You Are,' 'Pennies from Heaven,' 'All of Me.' Everyone knew those songs — that's why jazz musicians played them. It's not that they were jazz songs. They were pop songs. And jazz musicians played them in their style. I play the songs I like."
The MTO developed out of casual weekly midnight jam sessions at New York's Tonic. "Since Tonic closed, which is close to two and a half years ago, now we barely play in New York. From the heyday of the Knitting Factory through Tonic and a year and a half of Mondays at the Jazz Standard, I went from playing in New York City five times a week to playing maybe 10 times a year."