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Albums Of The Week: Steven Bernstein’s MTO feat. Catherine Russell | Good Time Music (Community Music, Vol. 2)

The maverick slide trumpeter takes a side trip to NOLA with a veteran vocalist.

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THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE:Good Time Music began when a promoter from Portugal asked slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein if his group with Henry Butler & The Hot 9 would like to play there. Butler couldn’t make the show but Bernstein suggested this great singer he’d worked with, Catherine Russell, who had cut the Harry Nilsson tune Poli High with Sexmob back in 2009. Bernstein built a book of arrangements around her, they played the show and it was a hit. The Community sessions with Russell were originally intended as a calling card for getting more shows, but after hearing Andy Taub‘s mixes, it was obvious that Good Time Music was a bona fide album.

The title comes from Lou Reed, who had just seen Levon Helm’s triumphant 2007 show at New York’s Beacon Theatre. Bernstein was in the band and recalls that “the audience went crazy.” But Reed’s summation was a bit more laconic. “Oh, you know,” he told his friend Hal Willner, “it was good time music.”

“When Hal told me that story, I thought it was a put-down,” says Bernstein. “But later I learned that Lou loved good time music — the kind where you just tap your foot and nod your head with a smile on your face — because he knew how important that is in the world. And with Levon, I learned how beautiful it was to play that kind of music. I always thought it would be great to make a record of good time music. So here it is.”

And once again, there’s that sense of music as healing. “Absolutely,” Bernstein agrees. “It’s always healing to play good time music — even if you haven’t experienced loss. Playing good time music feels good: The band feels good, the audience feels good, everything feels good.” Of course, Bernstein and the Millennial Territory Orchestra had no way of knowing how much the world would soon need music such as this.

All these tunes were Bernstein arrangements that got played once or even not at all. And most of them happen to be written by residents of New Orleans: Percy Mayfield (River’s Invitation), Earl King (Come On), Allen Toussaint (Yes We Can) and Professor Longhair (Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand). New Orleans music runs deep in Bernstein’s bones: he’s worked extensively not just with Henry Butler but with Allen Toussaint and Dr. John; he was originally taught trumpet in the style of Louis Armstrong, and, like Satchmo, he funnels his charisma and genial humor into a compelling stage presence.

Armstrong is just one connection to Russell: Her father Luis Russell was Satchmo’s musical director in the ’30s and early ’40s, and he also played with another New Orleans jazz originator, King Oliver. (Russell’s mother Carline Ray, a Juilliard grad, played with the famed International Sweethearts of Rhythm.) In their roles as go-to musicians, Russell and Bernstein have also collaborated on recordings with Levon Helm and Little Feat.

Russell sang backup with Steely Dan and David Bowie for years, as well as other blue-chip artists such as Paul Simon, Madonna and Al Green. Later in her career, she became an acclaimed solo artist, with seven albums and two Grammy nominations to her credit. “She’s just the best,” Bernstein marvels. “She’s got a perfect mixture of science [technique] and intuition. She’s an excellent musician: listen to her rhythm, every note she sings, it’s perfect. There is no one else like her.”