Steven Bernstein, the irrepressible and prolific trumpeter, composer, arranger, and bandleader of the Millennial Territory Orchestra orchestrates MTO Plays Sly. A wild, woolly, ambitious, yet reverent take on Sly & the Family Stone's music, spirit, and legacy. This is no mere jazzer's stodgy reading of source material. It's chock-full of Sly's funk, grit, groove, and visionary sophistication. Issued on Royal Potato Family, this 13-track set offers 11 tunes by Sly and a pair of interludes. The nine-piece MTO is augmented by a slew of guests, most notably organist Bernie Worrell, a true contemporary of the man. Vernon Reid and Bill Laswell also lend a hand, as do five vocalists: Dean Bowman, Sandra St. Victor, Martha Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, and Shilpa Ray. Things get cracking in a hurry with "Stand," sung by St. Victor. The MTO's horns and Worrell lead the way with a bubbling acoustic bassline by Ben Allison and Ben Perowsky's on-the-money backbeat. The instrumental intro is basically half the tune and crecendoes before St. Victor enters the lyric with soulful authority, matching the intensity of the band on the refrain. Reid's guitar break at the end, careening over the call and response between the horns, is a monster add-on. Hegarty's voice on "Family Affair" may initially seem an odd choice, but he adds a vulnerability implied in the original. The smoky horns, with Charlie Burnham's wah-wah violin and Mat Munisteri's moody guitar, make this a beautiful groover. None of these tracks misses the mark but "M'Lady," with Bowman on vocals, and Burnham's violin a complementary voice, feed into the chunky horns and Perowsky's popping tom-toms and snare. Worrell's organ just enters the grain of the tune from the top. Speaking of Worrell, his intro to "Skin I'm In," is a set of off-kilter motifs delivered with Sly's good humor: dissonant, classical, gospel, and various Family Stone thematics all lead the MTO, with St. Victor, into the tune. It uses the actual song -- self-empowerment soul anthem -- and pushes it all through jazz and funk. "Time," with Bowman singing, is a slow, soul blues, complete with an extended Reid guitar flameout; it's another winner. Ultimately, it's the MTO whose playing is so tight, instinctual, and empathic in their reaction to both Sly's tunes and Bernstein's charts that makes MTO Plays Sly such a joyous, vibrant album, at least as much for dancing as listening to.
MTO Plays Sly Review
by Thom Jurek