Diaspora Suite is the fourth in a series of Diaspora recordings that composer, trumpeter, bandleader, arranger, session player, producer, and musician-about-the-world Steven Bernstein has released on John Zorn's Tzadik imprint since 1999. The first three, Diaspora Soul, Diaspora Blues, and Diaspora Hollywood, were all universally acclaimed for their originality in taking traditional cantorial songs and other Ashkenazi folk music and arranging them in ways that allowed for elements of jazz, blues, rock, funk, soul, and even show tunes to integrate and transform one another without losing what was inherent to begin with. Now, four records in nearly nine years isn't a stretch for most musicians. But it's a wonder Bernstein gets them done at all, given the sheer number of other projects that he is deeply involved with -- working with Hal Willner on the Leonard Cohen tribute/documentary I'm Your Man, directing the band for Robert Altman's film Kansas City and taking the band on tour, scoring episodes of the Backyardagains animated TV series, playing with his longtime group Sex Mob, being a member of Levon Helm's band in Woodstock, playing dozens of recording sessions on trumpet and slide trumpet, playing in the Millennial Territory Orchestra, and playing in the Harlem Experiment -- as well as being a family man. According to his liner essay, Bernstein said label boss Zorn told him that if he wanted to record another album in the Diaspora series, he wanted all original material. Bernstein sat on this information while going about tours with his Diaspora band and doing all of his other work, all of which was tightly arranged. When playing with the Kansas City Band at Altman's memorial, he was amazed at the sheer number of actors, writers, and family who paid tribute to the man and his work ethic. A couple of Altman quotes guided him, including "You write so the actors know who they are...allow the conversation to unfold...and get it all on tape" and "Create an event and shoot it like to you have no control over it."
The cast Bernstein has on board for this project -- including some fellow Bay Area musicians and friends since grade school -- is a dream team: saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum; trombonist Jeff Cressman; guitarists John Schott, Nels Cline, and Will Bernard; bassist Devin Hoff; clarinet master Ben Goldberg; drummer Josh Jones; and drummer Scott Amendola. Whoa. Recorded back on his turf of origin in San Francisco rather than New York, Bernstein allowed the traces and influences of what he heard to influence his writing -- which he admits was a loose framework. So, there were synagogues and churches of all kinds, as well as the sounds of jazz, soul, funk, Latin boogaloo, electric and folk blues, and of course rock -- psychedelic and otherwise -- that emerged from the Mission District and the Haight, from the sounds of markets and fishermen. Bernstein had toured the world with his previous Diaspora groups and played those cantorial melodies and the folk and sacred musics of the Ashkenazi Jews to the point where they entered him permanently, poetically, informing him on this tightrope journey. What comes out of all these influences is a wild sprawling music that is full, bursting forth with life, joy, sadness, grief, loneliness, and the notion of being lost and wandering through historical, aesthetic, and religious traditions. It offers itself to the listener as the breath of human existence itself. And yeah, it's listenable; this is not a blowing session. There is a great degree of freedom that the individual players have within his structures, but Bernstein is a composer, and one who knows how to conduct a band.
All of these high-powered players don't so much fall in line as fall together in various parts of the work, each segment of which is titled after one of Jacob's sons, the heads of the 12 Tribes of Israel: where the great salsa horn line -- stretched rhythmically -- in "Issachar" meets a klezmer clarinet and controlled ambient guitar noise annotated by wah-wah pedals and solemn processional drumming littered with breakbeats. "Judah" is introduced with bells intoning in the foreground before the muted brass and reeds enter, playing long single notes in striated harmony and slowly becoming more active as something frenetic but hushed takes place in the backdrop; blues guitar lines all knotted up with energy are present but almost ghostly. When Goldberg's clarinet announces the initial mournful melody, what takes place is the kind of long, slow journey that allows for harmonies, alternate melodies, and elements of atmosphere to be directed by what's in front, asserting itself, however haltingly. It feels like Miles Davis with Gil Evans playing in a synagogue. Wonderful. The Afro-Latin hand percussion on "Joseph" and its dread dubby bassline have both restraint and incredible movement as a Hebrew folk song emerges from the brass and reeds. The guitars hover in the backdrop, suggesting something akin to Sly & Robbie playing with Miles at the Fillmore in 1973, with Dave Tarras -- or at least Andy Statman -- digging into various versions derived from the lost Tribes of Israel. Bernstein's solo is tight, funky, and in the pocket of all that rhythm. Simply put, Diaspora Suite may be the loosest of the four records, but in its way it is also the most exciting, and takes so many chances that it's amazing it doesn't fall apart in places. With the exception of some of Will Bernard's guitar parts spliced in later, this entire record was made live in six hours on a single day; it's a Herculean feat that feels like a travelogue being played at a party. This is the most wide-ranging of the Diaspora projects to date. That said, it does make one wonder what's next -- a Diaspora Symphony?