When people talk of “the diaspora” but mean New York, it feels like a big joke here in Palo Alto. It may be the heart of the Silicon Valley, but when it comes to Jewish culture, it is indeed the exile. And that is why last week’s concert featuring Steven Bernstein’s 9-piece outfit Diaspora Soul, a combustion of jazz, funk, and blues rhythms wrapped around traditional Jewish melodies, felt all the more momentous, exilic.
Palo Alto’s JCC is the first stop of Bernstein’s West Coast tour, timed with release of his new record, Cultural Capital (self-released) which he recorded with his band Sexmob. The album, however, isn’t entirely new; it’s been around for nearly a year, but, as Bernstein told me on phone, the only way to get hold of it was to purchase it directly from the maestro himself. “You could only get it if you gave me $10. And I’d tell people not to post it, or even blog about it, because I didn’t want that. You want to share it? Invite a friend to your house, have a glass of wine or beer, and listen.”
Bernstein, who was raised in nearby Berkeley, also fronts Millennial Territory Orchestra, Butler, Bernstein, and the Hot 9, and has participated in numerous other projects, including a collaboration with the legendary Levon Helm of The Band, who died in 2012. (Indeed, Bernstein played on Helm’s two Grammy-winning albums, and arranged the music for them.) The list of Bernstein’s accolades is long and impressive: It includes another Grammy for playing on a Bill Frisell album Unspeakable, and being named Downbeat magazine’s “Rising Star-Arranger” from 2004 to 2006.
The band opened their Palo Alto set with a deconstructed, juicy rendition of “Mah Nishtanah.” Upon completion, Bernstein pointed to the matzo-patterned tie of his bandmate and friend, horn player Paul Shapiro, who immediately quipped: “Musicians are known for their timing.” Shapiro is a jazz master in his own right—his band Ribs & Brisket Revue takes some of the Catskills classics into the present.
Staying on the Passover theme, the band played a raucous rendition of “Let My People Go,” and the banter went on all through the set. At one point Bernstein urged the audience to purchase his CDs. “Hanukkah is only eight months away,” he pointed out. “If you like the music, buy a record and take it home,” he said, then added: “But if you don’t like it, buy it and give it to someone you can’t stand.”
Perhaps as a reminder that Hanukkah is indeed around the corner, the band played a memorable spin on “Maoz Tzur” and, for a good measure, a take on “Avinu Malkeinu”; Bernstein calls his version of the tune “Jewish Blues.” Though the emotional proximity of blues and Jewish liturgy is not a new idea, the tune’s plaintive heart-break, chorus’s obsession, and hard, swaggering rhythm brought the point home with clarity and virtuosity. Listening to it, I realized that the instrumental version can be more confessional than anything one can say with words.
“Diaspora Soul,” said Bernstein in a phone interview, is the name that came to him in the process of research around the original recording of the project, which is now hosted by the Tzadik Label. “Soul means two things. This music is the soul of the people of the diaspora, and it is also what we call ‘the soul music’ genre. It’s Jewish music, and music from New Orleans, which, by the way, is a diaspora too – African and French. It is mixed with Cuban music. All American music is diaspora soul music, unless you’re talking about Native Americans,” riffed Bernstein.
In the jazz world, special respect is allotted to musicians who are not merely brilliant instrumentalists, but those among them who are also composers. Though, of course, when it comes to jazz, composition means something different than it does in other genres—the challenge is to have the vision to come up with melodic snippets that will lend themselves to dramatic unfolding through improvisation. Equally important is the ability to arrange existing melodies, adding choruses, layers of call and response, solos, and more. “Melody is universal,” said Bernstein in a phone interview. “I just put in different contexts, which depend on rhythm, orchestration, and arrangements,” and could change depending on the personnel. Indeed, all through his Palo Alto set, Bernstein was not merely playing his compositions and arrangements; he was moving around the stage, dancing, spontaneously conducting, and directing musicians as he went along. He shaped the collective improvisation of the band, and the way that it happened, will never happen occur again.
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Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).